Royal Permission To Return
King Cyrus was moved by God to allow the Jews to return and rebuild the temple. This, however, did not mean Cyrus was a true believer or that God miraculously worked on his heart. History tells us that Cyrus made nearly identical decrees concerning other nationalities. In other words, it was not unique that the Jews were allowed to return.
Further, God works in providence to accomplish His will. The prophets had foretold of Cyrus’ actions about 170 years before (Isa. 44:28-45:13). It is entirely possible that some among the Jews showed Cyrus the prophecy and it prompted him to not only permit a return, but also to encourage and support it with the king’s treasury.
However it came about, the author of Ezra saw Cyrus’ actions as the work of God. His view is that God was working to restore His people to their land.
Those Who Returned
Three tribes are specifically mentioned in this first return. The mention of Judah, Benjamin, and the Levites indicate these are Babylonian captives, that is, they were from the southern kingdom of Judah. No mention is made of any from the northern kingdom of Israel returning from captivity.
Those who returned were committed to the cause. They gave up their settled life of relative ease and prosperity to journey to Canaan and rebuild the nation. Yet, they did so because God moved them in their spirits.
Listing of The Returnees
While we do not know much about the majority of those listed, there are a few things we need to note.
Zerubbabel was a descendent of David and governor of Judah (Ezra 2:2; 3:2; 1 Chron. 3:1, 17). Jeshua was high priest (Hag. 1:1). The Nehemiah mentioned in Ezra 2:2 is not the same Nehemiah who returned over 90 years later.
Why did the Holy Spirit direct the author to compile of list of names? What purpose does this serve? The New American Commentary suggests “the author and his readers were concerned about the continuity of this community with the preexilic Jewish nation” (73). The intent is to firmly establish a connection between those taken into captivity and those returning from it. To show God was fulfilling His promise to Israel. The group that returned was not very large, but sufficient to reestablish a community in Israel. There would have been a mix of ages, wealth, and skills. Such a small group would be forced to work with and support one another if they hoped to accomplish their task.