Ezra 1

Historical Background

The Book of 2nd Chronicles skims over an interesting historical event—the change of power from Babylon to Persia—from Nebuchadnezzar and his descendants to King Cyrus.  Let’s set the stage.  The time is the Babylonian Captivity.  Jerusalem is destroyed; the temple has been destroyed; the small remnant of surviving Jews in Babylon include Ezekiel, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-Nego, etc (Dan. 1:21).  The Lord had used Nebuchadnezzar to humble the Kingdom of Judah, but then the Lord decided to humble the stout heart of Babylon according to the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel.


   Israel is a scattered sheep; the lions have driven him away: first the king of Assyria hath devoured him; and last this Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon hath broken his bones.

   Therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will punish the king of Babylon and his land, as I have punished the king of Assyria.

   …for this is the work of the Lord God of hosts in the land of the Chaldeans.

   Come against her… and destroyer her utterly: let nothing be left…

   For she hath been proud against the Lord, against the Holy One of Israel.

   Therefore shall her young men fall in the streets, and all her men of war shall be cut off in that day, saith the Lord. (Jer. 50:17-18, 25-30)

After 70 years of captivity in Babylon, the Lord sent Cyrus the king of Persia to conquer Babylon and humble the Chaldeans.  The Jews dwelt in Babylon when the Persian army invaded in 539 BC. 

“Cyrus (580-529 BC) was the first Achaemenid Emperor. He founded Persia by uniting the two original Iranian Tribes- the Medes and the Persians. Although he was known to be a great conqueror, who at one point controlled one of the greatest Empires ever seen, he is best remembered for his unprecedented tolerance and magnanimous attitude towards those he defeated… When he conquered Babylon, he did so to cheers from the Jewish Community, who welcomed him as a liberator—he allowed the Jews to return to the promised Land. He showed great forbearance and respect towards the religious beliefs and cultural traditions of other races. These qualities earned him the respect and homage of all the people over whom he ruled.” (http://www.iranchamber.com/history/cyrus/cyrus.php)

The manner in which Cyrus overtook such a mightily fortified city like Babylon is an interesting piece of ancient warfare.

“After conquering numerous other enemies, Cyrus faced his greatest challenge— the huge walled city, 24 square kilometres of Babylon. Xenophon records the following surmising of Cyrus, ‘But I am sure I cannot see how any one could take by storm, walls so massive and so high.’

“Both Herodotus and Xenophon record that Cyrus resolved to lay siege on Babylon and wait until the people within the walls ran out of food. He was informed (perhaps by Gadatas and Gobryas—two defectors from Babylon) that the great city had more than 20 years of food supplies. Cyrus became frustrated, but then a plan came to him, perhaps from one of his advisers or perhaps from his own design. The walls were too thick to break. The gates were too strong. There was only one fathomable way to get in—the Euphrates River, which went through the middle of the city.

“Years earlier, Babylon had been ruled by a queen named Nitocris. Because the city was bisected by the Euphrates River she wished to build a bridge from one side to the other in the middle of the city. In order to accomplish this goal, she first had to reduce the water level of the Euphrates enough to allow workmen to build the bridge. She devised a massive plan that would do the trick—an artificial lake far upriver into which the Euphrates could be diverted. It was done and the workmen were able to set the bridge's foundation stones in the bed of the river.

“The plan that came to Cyrus included a similar feat. The lake, now a marsh, having been closed off, would be reopened and the Persian army would wade into the city under the massive walls of Babylon. So Cyrus deployed half of his regiment to where the Euphrates entered the city and half to where it exited. He then took a small number of men to where the trench to the lake had, over the previous few weeks, been excavated and had them open the mouth of the trench into the Euphrates.

“There was one fatal flaw in Cyrus' plan. The walls of Babylon extended far upstream along the banks of the river. If the Babylonians witnessed the water level diminishing and saw the Persian army entering the river, they would gather along the walls and annihilate the Persians with a barrage of ammunition.

“Cyrus' way of alleviating this problem was to wait for two important factors— darkness and drunkenness.

The Night of the Attack

“In the biblical book of Daniel an amazing story is recorded. Belshazzar threw a huge banquet for 1000 of his leading lords. Huge amounts of food and wine were consumed and the entire city was caught up in the celebration.

“To demonstrate his power and security, despite the siege outside the city walls, Belshazzar called for the confiscated goblets from Yahweh's temple in Jerusalem, had them filled with wine and joined with his lords, wives and concubines in drinking wine from these sacred vessels. Moments later a hand appeared and wrote on the wall.

“The message, ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin,’ was unintelligible to the leading scholars and astrologers in Babylon. The queen remembered Daniel and the way he had helped previous kings. Daniel was called in and, after berating Belshazzar for his blatant misuse of holy relics, he translated the handwriting on the wall:

This is what these words mean:

Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.

Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.

Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians’ (Daniel 5:26-28).

“Moments later, perhaps even while Daniel was explaining the divine message to the king, the Persian army waded under the walls and climbed the riverbank into the heart of Babylon.

“Thus, Cyrus' men had no challenge to overcome in entering the great city.

“Cyrus had given direct orders that none of the city folk were to be unduly harmed. The Babylonian traitors— Gadatas and Gobryas—led the army to the palace because they knew the city well. When they arrived, Belshazzar was killed while trying to defend himself.

“A few days later, having completed the journey back from the lake, Cyrus entered Babylon and was greeted with open arms and much rejoicing by the Babylonian people. Liberation had arrived! Every record referring to Cyrus' interaction with subjected nations reveals a benevolent leader who held high the concerns of his new people.

“And, as prophesied by Isaiah, Cyrus sent many Israelites back to Jerusalem with funds to rebuild the temple that had been decimated by Nebuchadnezzar.

“He also sent back the holy relics that had been stolen.” (https://www.hopechannel.com/read/cyrus-the-great)

Ezra 1:1 the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia

Isaiah had prophesied, “Cyrus, he is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid… I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives” (Isa. 44:28; 45:13)

“Cyrus was a new kind of conqueror. Never had the world witnessed a victor who did not glory in violation. He didn't rape, pillage or destroy. Instead, he released the commoners from the tyranny of their overlords, allowed them to worship their own gods and return to their chosen way of life. Because of this unique kindness Cyrus was known as the ‘friendly conqueror.’

“More than a century before Cyrus was born the prophet Isaiah received a prophecy that named Cyrus as conqueror: ‘Who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid.’ This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armour, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut’ (Isaiah 44:28–45:1).

“Cyrus was chosen by God, to set the Israelites free from bondage in Babylon, years before they were even taken captive.” (https://www.hopechannel.com/read/cyrus-the-great )

George Albert Smith

It was a strange thing that in the days of Isaiah the Lord revealed to him that the greatest of all the nations in the earth should be humbled, and He gave the name of the man, Cyrus, whom the Lord referred to as His anointed, and told Isaiah that Cyrus would overthrow Babylon and rebuild Jerusalem. The prophet had said that Jerusalem would be in bondage seventy years.  It was just seventy years when Cyrus gathered together and took back to Jerusalem the Jews who had been taken captive to Babylon. Cyrus took artisans and skilled men (Ezra 3:7) and the vessels that had been stolen from the temple by those who had lived in Babylon and went back to rebuild Jerusalem. (Conference Report, Oct. 1943, 43)

Ezra 1:3 Who is there among you of all his people?... let him go up to Jerusalem

Was this the word of the Lord through Cyrus the Persian king?  It seems he is saying, “Let them who be of Judah flee unto the Jerusalem, unto the mountains of the Lord’s house.  Go ye out from among the nations, even from Babylon, from the midst of wickedness, which is spiritual Babylon.  But verily, thus saith the Lord, let not your flight be in haste, but let all things be prepared before you; and he that goeth, let him not look back lest sudden destruction shall come upon him.”

That is the message of Cyrus, Sheshbazzar the prince, and Zerubbabel—to flee Babylon.  What does this have to do with us?  Well, if you were astute, you might have noticed that the above quote is not in the Old Testament.  It is found in D&C 133:13-16.  The message is always the same:  Get out of Babylon!  Go to the Temple!  Cleanse yourselves from spiritual wickedness and be clean before the Lord!

“Cyrus thus reversed the policy of preceding rulers: instead of deporting conquered peoples, he restored them to their homelands. The Assyrians had deported the people of the kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C., and the Babylonians had deported the Jews in 587/6 B.C. But Cyrus was broad-minded in his dealings with conquered peoples and was detached enough in his adherence to his own religion that he was able to grant concessions to others. He established a remarkably farsighted and effective administrative system for the far-flung Persian Empire. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah give us a number of fascinating glimpses into the workings of this system. Cyrus, one of the most remarkable rulers in history, was thus able to carry out a mission that had been foreseen two hundred years earlier by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut.’ (Isa. 45:1.)” (John M. Lundquist, “Life in Ancient Biblical Lands,” Ensign, Dec. 1981, 43)

Ezra 1:5 Judah and Benjamin and the priests, and the Levites

Remember that only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin belonged to the Kingdom of Judah.  The 10 other tribes are scattered in the north countries, but Judah and Benjamin, plus a smattering of Levites, were the only tribes left to inherit Jerusalem.  There was a subtle distinction between the priests and the Levites.  Both were Levites by descent, but the priests were descended directly from Aaron, and different families of Levites were responsible for different parts of the temple service. The priests officiated where the Levites had more servile duties (Ex. 28:1; Num. 3:6-8).

Ezra 1:6 All they that were about them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold

When Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, they “spoiled the Egyptians,” taking their gold, silver, and precious jewels (Ex. 12:35-36).  The same thing happens when this remnant leaves Babylon.  We can expect the same thing when the Lord comes again.  This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, to receive the wealth of the Gentiles, “the forces of the gentiles shall come unto thee… Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish… to bring thy sons from far, their silver and their gold with them, unto the name of the Lord thy God ant to the Holy One of Israel, because he hath glorified thee.  And the sons of strangers shall build up thy walls, and their kings shall minister unto thee.” (Isa 60:5, 9-10)


Cyrus… gave them leave to go back to their own country, and to rebuild their city Jerusalem, and the temple of God, for that he would be their assistant, and that he would write to the rulers and governors that were in the neighborhood of their country of Judea, that they should contribute to them gold and silver for the building of the temple, and besides that, beasts for their sacrifices.

When Cyrus had said this to the Israelites, the rulers of the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin, with the Levites and priests, went in haste to Jerusalem; yet did many of them stay at Babylon, as not willing to leave their possessions; and when they were come thither, all the king's friends assisted them, and brought in, for the building of the temple, some gold, and some silver, and some a great many cattle and horses. So they performed their vows to God, and offered the sacrifices that had been accustomed of old time. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI, 1:2-3)

Ezra 1:7-11 Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of the Lord

Think of all the wealth in just the vessels of the Lord, let alone the altars, draperies, gold leaf, jewels, temple clothing, breastplate, etc:  30 chargers of pure gold, 30 basins of pure gold, 1000 chargers of silver, 410 basins of silver, and knives for offering sacrifice. 

Ezra 1.jpg Ezra 1a.jpg

Images courtesy of the Temple Institute (Jewish organization dedicated to building the Third Temple in Jerusalem)

Jeffrey R. Holland

“Be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord.” (Isa. 52:11; see also 3 Ne. 20:41; D&C 38:42; D&C 133:5) Let me tell you what that phrase “bear the vessels of the Lord” means. Anciently it had at least two meanings, both related to the work of the priesthood.

The first refers to the recovery and return to Jerusalem of various temple implements that had been carried into Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. In physically handling the return of these items, the Lord reminded those early brethren of the sanctity of anything related to the temple. Therefore as they carried back to their homeland these various bowls, basins, cups, and other vessels, they themselves were to be as clean as the ceremonial instruments they bore. (See 2 Kgs. 25:14–15) 

The second meaning is related to the first. Similar bowls and implements were used for ritual purification in the home…

In both of these biblical accounts the message is that as priesthood bearers not only are we to handle sacred vessels and emblems of God’s power—think of preparing, blessing, and passing the sacrament, for example—but we are also to be a sanctified instrument as well. Partly because of what we are to do but more importantly because of what we are to be, the prophets and apostles tell us to “flee … youthful lusts” and “call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” They tell us to be clean. (Conference Report, Oct. 2000, 40)