The book of Ezra contains two parts of the amazing story about the Jews return to the Promised Land after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Their initial return started in 538 B.C. when Cyrus declared that the LORD God of heaven had given him all the kingdoms of the earth and charged him to build him a house in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2). After 80 years of start and stop activity directed at rebuilding the once great city of Jerusalem, a second wave of Jewish settlers returned to the Promised Land. This time, God’s people were led by Ezra, a priest that was a direct descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. It says in Ezra 7:6, “This Ezra went up from Babylon; and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him.”
The king referred to in Ezra 7:6 was Artaxerxes king of Persia, the son of Ahasuerus, the Persian king that was married to Esther. At the beginning of his reign, Artaxerxes had ordered God’s people to stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:23). In the seventh year of his reign, Artaxerxes wrote a letter to Ezra stating:
I make a decree, that all they of the people of Israel, and of his priests and Levites, in my realm, which are minded of their own freewill to go up to Jerusalem, go with thee. Forasmuch as thou art sent of the king, and of his seven counsellers, to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem, according to the law of thy God which is in thine hand; and to carry the silver and gold, which the king and his counsellers have freely offered unto the God of Israel, whose habitation is in Jerusalem. (Ezra 7:13-15)
According to Artaxerxes decree, any Jew that wanted to leave Persia and return to Israel was free to do so. Artaxerxes and his counsellers gave of their own wealth a freewill offering to God and supplied everything that was needed for the people’s journey back to Jerusalem. This amazing turn around might best be described as an act of divine intervention because no reason was given in Ezra’s book to explain why Artaxerxes was compelled to go to such great lengths to ensure the Jews were able to return to Jerusalem after having put a stop to their rebuilding effort only a few years earlier. Perhaps, God touched the heart of Artaxerxes or the king saw the benefit of having God on his side. Unlike his predecessor Cyrus, Artaxerxes didn’t claim the LORD had given him his kingdom (Ezra 1:2). Therefore, Artaxerxes motivation may have been to gain favor with God. If so, it appears he was successful because his 40+ year reign was the longest of all the kings of Persia.