Chapter 1 recounts the decree of the Persian ruler Cyrus that the Jews could return to their homeland and rebuild the Jerusalem temple. This project required financial support, particularly from those Jews who decided to remain in Babylon. Chapter 1 also outlines the different categories of temple functionaries who returned and some of the clan leaders. The returnees brought temple vessels that had been captured and taken away by the Babylonians.
Chapter 1 opens during the first year of Cyrus’s reign. (Cyrus started ruling Persia in 559 BC and conquered Babylon in 539 or 538 BC.) This passage alludes to a prophecy of Jeremiah concerning the seventy-year exile when Babylon was destroyed (see Jeremiah 25:12).
In this proclamation, Cyrus claimed God had given him all the kingdoms of the earth and had told him to build a house at Jerusalem. He invited people of Judah to return to rebuild the temple. Those who remained behind should send resources to support the temple construction.
The Cyrus Cylinder expanded this decree to other nations, giving them permission to worship their own gods and build their own temples.
The first two and a half verses are also found in 2 Chronicles 36:22–23, and the close relationship between the Lord and Cyrus is also described in Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1.
As He did with Cyrus, God potentially can work through world leaders today to accomplish His broader purposes for His children on the earth.
Some of the clan leaders of Judah and Benjamin, along with priests and Levites and those “whose spirit God had raised,” went to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:5). Those who stayed behind sent silver, gold, animals, precious things, and other offerings to support the temple construction. Joseph Smith used language that echoes that of these verses when he invited the Saints of his day to contribute precious things and whatever could be given to the construction of the temple (see Doctrine and Covenants 109:5).
Cyrus allowed those returning to Jerusalem to take back vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken away from the temple in Jerusalem. This return of temple vessels is also mentioned in Ezra 5:14 and 6:5. Some earlier Old Testament passages mention Nebuchadnezzar’s taking the temple vessels out of Jerusalem when he conquered the city around 587 BC (see 2 Chronicles 36:10, 18; 2 Kings 24:13).
Cyrus gave these temple vessels to Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah. Some biblical scholars think Zerubbabel may be another name for Sheshbazzar; however, in chapter 5 Zerubabbel and Sheshbazzar appear together. Therefore the text does not seem to support this idea.
The accompanying list of amounts of gold, silver, and vessels shows not only specificity but also generosity.