As a consequence of its spiritual apostasy, the Lord declared that the kingdom of Judah would be taken into Babylonian captivity for a period of seventy years (Jeremiah 25:12). After a series of devastating campaigns, Judah fell; the city and temple were destroyed in 586 B.C.
In 536 B.C., however, Babylon fell to the Persians. The new Persian monarch was Cyrus. According to the biblical record, Cyrus issued a decree authorizing the Jews to return to their homeland. In the decree, Cyrus affirmed that “Jehovah, the God of heaven” had given to him the kingdoms of the earth; further, wrote Cyrus, “he [God] has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem which is in Judah” (Ezra 1:2).
Interestingly, the prophet Isaiah had foretold this very matter about 150 years before Cyrus came to the throne (see Isaiah 44:28; 45:1ff).
Josephus, the Jewish historian, has a fascinating comment on this incident. He states that Cyrus was shown the material from the book of Isaiah containing this prophecy. Upon reading the divine prediction, the king announced:
“Thus says Cyrus the king: Since God Almighty has appointed me to be king of the habitable earth, I believe that he is the God which the nation of the Israelites worship; for indeed he foretold my name by the prophets, and that I should build him a house at Jerusalem, in the country of Judah” (Antiquities 11.1.1).
Josephus declares that it was by this prophecy that the king was motivated “to fulfill what was so written.” This may be an interesting example of how providence can work.
Draw a block around Ezra 1:2, therefore, and note: Josephus states that Cyrus was motivated by Isaiah’s prophecy; see Isaiah 44:28; 45:1ff. This is an interesting detail to mention when teaching this material.