7.45 Ezra-Nehemiah -- Cyrus as God's Shepherd?
Ezra himself does not appear in his own book until chapter 7. Interestingly, the book of Ezra begins with a pagan king, Cyrus of Persia, and of even greater significance, with the action of God upon this king:
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... (Ezra 1:1).
God's choice of Cyrus was not a complete surprise, because it had been foretold by the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah:
"I am the Lord...
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'" (Isa 44:24, Isa 44:28).
This is what the Lord says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place" (Jer 29:10).
Cyrus' proclamation said that the God of Heaven had appointed him to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Any Jews who wished to return to their homeland to assist in this work were free to go, and they were allowed to receive gifts and offerings from other Jews who chose to remain in Babylon. There is undoubtedly a lot of backstory to this edict, but we are not privy to the details. One reasonable speculation is that Jewish leaders and advisors helped frame this edict (Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, New International Commentary on the OT, Fensham, p. 44).
Cyrus' motivation was enlightened self-interest. First of all, he wanted to ensure stability in his empire, and followed a policy opposite that of his predecessors the Babylonians, who favored uprooting and relocating conquered peoples. Cyrus sought to build loyalty through encouraging rather than suppressing local identity (NIC, pp. 10-11; NIV p. 673 footnote). Second, and related to this, along with pacifying the various nations he ruled, he sought to appease their various gods by reconstructing shrines and temples, and re-instituting religious services. He even went so far as to restore all the looted gold and silver Temple articles (5400 pieces!) that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away (Ezra 1:7).
It is interesting to observe how rare in history is this quality of imperial laissez-faire. Cyrus had a vast territory to oversee, comprised of many subject peoples and faiths. The typical administrative philosophy of ancient and modern Pharaohs facing a similar challenge is one of oppression, standardization, bureaucratization, centralization and taxation of the provinces. The intent seems to be to rule through intimidation, to exterminate all potential opposition. This ends up, eventually, by eliminating all public support for the regime and creating the very enemies that cause its downfall. That Cyrus adopted a different technique, a sort of federalism of local nations under Persian authority, can indeed be ascribed to a miraculous act of God.