Cyrus gives license to the Jewish leadership to move back to Israel and rebuild the temple. It looks like everyone wants to take part in this. Ezra 1:5-6 tells about the beginning of the preparations for the move. “Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem. And all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares, besides all that was freely offered.” It was the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin that were taken hostage 70 years earlier. The Levites, many of whom had migrated from the northern kingdom to Judah to fulfill their roles at the temple are included here. Since Simeon’s land was surrounded by Judah’s land, it’s probable that the tribe of Simeon, if there were any that had not assimilated into Judah, went into captivity with them and returned with them.

The interesting phrase in this passage is that God’s Spirit “stirred them to go up and rebuild the house.” He didn’t stir everyone’s spirit, but even those who did not go with them participated in the venture. The Handbook for Translators explains, “Not every Jewish exile returned to Jerusalem. The only people who returned were those who responded to God’s leading. Here God’s action is again made apparent in the events that are being recounted. In the same way that God had moved the heart of King Cyrus (see verse 1 above), he now moves the hearts of the people to fulfill his will. This includes the heads, the priests, the Levites, together with “everyone else whose heart God had moved.”[1] God did not move in everyone to return. But it’s interesting that “…it is always God himself who takes the initiative in moving people in their spirits to take the direction he plans for them. Those Jews who responded positively did so in spite of the fact that returning home would involve considerable sacrifice and hardship. They were not going on a holiday but were faced with a hazardous journey of some 900 miles, and the land waiting for them had been devastated, with many of its towns and villages destroyed and its temple razed to the ground. We are inclined to feel, therefore, that if God himself had not moved their spirits, they would not have moved at all! The same principle applies to the experience of Christian conversion. When people commit their lives to Christ in a meaningful and lasting way, it is not because they have made a mental decision to do so, but because God himself, by his Holy Spirit, has moved them in their spirits to respond to the message of salvation.”[2] When we come to faith in Christ, it’s very much like coming home after a long captivity.

Imagine the joy of those old people who had been taken captive in their youth to see this take place in their lives. Remember the grief they experienced at the time of their being taken into captivity? Psalm 137:1-6 shares that sorrow. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there, our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!”

[1] Noss, Philip A., and Kenneth J. Thomas. 2005. A Handbook on Ezra and Nehemiah. Edited by Paul Clarke, Schuyler Brown, Louis Dorn, and Donald Slager. United Bible Societies’ Handbooks. New York: United Bible Societies.

[2] Williams, Peter. 2006. Opening up Ezra. Opening Up Commentary. Leominster: Day One Publications.