Restoration and Persian Rule
(536 - 332 BC)

by Al Maxey

(Cyrus) (Cambyses) (Darius I) (Xerxes I) (Artaxerxes I) (Xerxes II) (Darius II) (Artaxerxes II) (Artaxerxes III) (Arses) (Darius III)

Throughout the writings of the OT one discovers time and again that the people of Israel held a special place in the heart of God. He brought them up out of a land of bondage, bringing them to Himself as a set apart people, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (Exodus 19). He formed them into a mighty nation, protected them, provided for their needs, and loved them.

The people of Israel, however, repeatedly turned their backs on God, spurning His loving relationship with them. They sought out false gods, committing spiritual adultery with the nations around them. God patiently, and by various means, sought to bring them to repentance. Although there were brief periods of restoration, His efforts were ultimately to no avail.

Finally, in 722 BC God allowed the Northern Kingdom -- Israel -- to be destroyed by the Assyrians, and then in 586 BC the Southern Kingdom -- Judah -- fell to the Babylonians. God's people were led away into captivity. For the Jews this was not only a period of national humiliation and lamentation, but also one of radical change in nearly every area of their lives.

It was also a time of spiritual purification. Never again would the Jewish people return as a nation to the worship of idols. For a time their religion became distinctly more spiritual and personal in nature; their realization of individual responsibility grew stronger. The Law of God began to take on new meaning for them, and they became a people truly united in ideals and purpose. It was during this time of suffering, humiliation and captivity that many feel Judaism was truly born.

The Lord limited the captivity to 70 years. "For thus says the Lord, 'When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope'" (Jeremiah 29:10-11). These 70 years are generally reckoned in one of two ways:

  1. From 606 BC, when the first group of captives was taken, to 536 BC, when the first group of captives returned to their homeland.

  2. From 586 BC, when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the Temple was destroyed, to 516 BC, when the work on the new Temple was completed.

CYRUS --- (559 - 530 BC)

In the year 559 BC a thirty year old man named Cyrus, from the province of Anshan in Media, began his rise to power. Within twenty years he had conquered almost all the then known world, including Media, Persia, and Asia Minor. The nation he had not yet subdued, however, was Babylon, which at this time was perhaps the mightiest nation on earth. King Nabonidus of Babylon (the successor to Nebuchadnezzar), and his oldest son Belshazzar, were becoming increasingly concerned over the military successes of Cyrus. They set up elaborate defenses and prepared themselves for war. In 539 BC Cyrus marched upon Babylon, anticipating the "mother of all wars." However, when the Babylonians beheld the tremendous might arrayed against them, they threw open their gates and surrendered without a fight. Cyrus thus became the undisputed ruler of Asia, which came to be known as the Persian Empire.

With the capture of Babylon, Cyrus also became the new master of the exiled Jewish people. The Jews rejoiced over this political change, as conditions had grown increasingly severe under King Nabonidus. In his first year as monarch, Cyrus issued his famous decree allowing the Jews to return home and to rebuild their Temple (Ezra 1:1-4). All of this had been predicted before Cyrus was even born (Isaiah 44:28 - 45:13).

Oddly, many Jews did not want to return to Palestine. They had become established in this new land; many had been born and raised here; their homes and families and businesses were here. Also, they were now prospering under the leadership of Cyrus. Thus, only a remnant actually returned. There were a total of about 60,000 Jews who took advantage of Cyrus' gracious offer. They returned in three separate groups, led by three notable men --- Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

The first group set out on the 800 miles journey in 536 BC under the leadership of Zerubbabel, a prince of the house of David. Also in leadership positions were Joshua, a descendant of the priests, and Shesh-bazzar, who had charge of the sacred vessels of the Temple which King Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem in 586 BC. According to Ezra 2:64-65, some 49,897 people made this journey back to Palestine in this first group. Their primary mission was to rebuild the city and the Temple, and to restore the worship of God in Jerusalem.

At first, the work progressed well. The foundation of the Temple was laid amid great rejoicing (Ezra 3:10-13). Initial enthusiasm gave way to despair, however, when they began to experience opposition from the peoples who were living in the land of Palestine at the time of their return.

Ezra 4:4-5 points out that their opposition was so great, and their discouragement so deep, that all work on the Temple ceased for about 14 years. During this time of discouragement, Cyrus was killed in a battle with some nomads on the eastern frontier of his empire.

CAMBYSES --- (530 - 522 BC)

At the death of Cyrus, his son Cambyses takes the throne. He is never mentioned in the Bible because he had few dealings with, and even less concern for, the people of Israel. His chief concern was to carry on the conquests of his father, and in his eight years as king he conquered Egypt and parts of Africa, thus extending even further the borders of the Persian Empire.

Cambyses was an epileptic, and toward the end of his reign had become almost completely insane. In Egypt, he declared himself to be the son of Re -- the sun god -- and commanded the people to worship him. The historical records show that he also committed terrible atrocities against the people of Egypt. In 522 BC Cambyses committed suicide somewhere in northern Palestine, thus ending his short reign of terror.

DARIUS I --- (522 - 486 BC)

Darius, the son of Hystaspes, became the next monarch of the Persian Empire, but not without a struggle. Others also aspired to the throne, but Darius was a determined man, and put down all revolt with extreme cruelty. The "Behistun Inscription," which Darius had carved on the face of a cliff, and which is still visible to this day, describes the fate of one of the men who resisted him. Darius boasts that he "cut off his nose and his ears and his tongue and put out his eyes." He then cast him in fetters before the royal court to be gazed at by the people as a warning that resistance does not pay.

Although he could be an extremely cruel man, he nevertheless proved to be a great benefactor to the people of Israel. He issued a decree ordering the people of the land to leave the Jews alone and allow them to finish the Temple. He also decreed that funds from the royal treasury be sent to the Jews to expedite the rebuilding of their Temple. The text of this decree can be found in Ezra 6:6-12.

The Jews went back to work, and the Temple was soon completed (in the year 516 BC) amid great rejoicing and sacrifices unto God (Ezra 6:15-22). In addition to Darius' assistance, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah also were active at this time, encouraging the people to resume their work on the Temple. Thirty years after the rebuilding of the Temple, Darius was slain while attempting to put down an Egyptian revolt.

Very little is known of the 60 years which follow the rebuilding of the Temple. The Book of Esther fits into this period, but reflects life in the Persian capital rather than life in Palestine. We do know, however, that political power was passing more and more into the hands of the priesthood who were intent upon accommodating the local Palestinians and their culture. Intermarriage with unbelievers was common, as was the increased adoption of their pagan beliefs and practices. This spirit of compromise led to a noticeable deterioration in the spiritual life of the people of Israel.

XERXES I, or AHASUERUS --- (486 - 465 BC)

At the death of Darius, the throne went to his son Xerxes -- also known by the name Ahasuerus. Xerxes was the grandson of Cyrus, since his father had married Atossa, who was one of the daughters of Cyrus. Xerxes was 35 years old when he ascended the throne in 486 BC.

Immediately upon taking the throne, he acted promptly and put down the Egyptian revolt that had cost his father his life. Later, Babylon also tried to rebel against his leadership, but again he put down the revolt in short order. His biggest problem came from the Greeks, who also decided to rebel against Persian domination, and after extended battles were able to win their freedom. This may have seemed rather insignificant at the time, but over a century later these Greeks, under the leadership of Alexander the Great, would utterly defeat the Persians and take over the empire --- thus, the seed for the later Greek Empire was being planted.

The real significance of Xerxes, as concerns the Bible and the Jewish people, is that he was the Persian king who married Esther. The story of Esther, and of her fellow Jews who remained behind in Babylon (later "Persia") rather than return to Palestine, can be read in the Book of Esther. The deliverance of her people, which is discussed in this biblical book, is celebrated to this day in the Feast of Purim.

Xerxes, who religiously was a Zoroastrian, was reputed to have behaved habitually like a spoiled child. He loved a lot of pomp and display, and was very susceptible to flattery. He was assassinated by Artabanus, the captain of his bodyguard. Artabanus reigned for about 7 months before he was killed by Xerxes' third son, and the legitimate heir to the throne, Artaxerxes.

ARTAXERXES I --- (465 - 424 BC)

Artaxerxes was also known by the name Longimanus ("the long handed") because his right hand was said to have been a good deal larger than his left. During his reign, Ezra requested permission to lead another group of Jews back to their homeland (Ezra 7). Permission was granted and Ezra returned in the year 458 BC with a group of about 1500 Jews (Ezra 8).

Upon his arrival, Ezra began a large scale reform, one which was sorely needed. The Jews in Jerusalem were disregarding the Law, and were also divorcing their lawful Jewish wives and marrying the pagan women of the area. Ezra commanded the people to put away their pagan wives, and to turn back to God (Ezra 9-10). Most of the people obeyed, but some refused and were tried in a special court. The authority to establish this court was given in the decree of Artaxerxes, the text of which is recorded in Ezra 7:12-26. Ezra was assisted in his work of reformation by the prophet Malachi.

Another thing that distressed the Jews living in Jerusalem was that their city did not have a wall; it had been destroyed in 586 BC when the city fell to the Babylonians. One of the Jews upset by this was Nehemiah, the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. When the king learned what was troubling Nehemiah, he allowed him to return to Jerusalem with a small group of his fellow countrymen to lead the efforts to rebuild the walls of the city. The first half of the Book of Nehemiah deals with this effort, and with the obstacles they encountered.

About the year 444 BC, the walls around the city of Jerusalem were completed. This event was celebrated with great rejoicing, and with sacrifices to God. That same year, Nehemiah was made Governor of Jerusalem, a position which he held until 425 BC. He also helped to institute additional reforms among the people, which are discussed in the latter half of the biblical book which bears his name.

During the reign of Artaxerxes I, the Persian Empire began its gradual decline as a world power. They lost more and more of their previously captured territory. The empire slowly, but surely, began to slip under Greek control.

XERXES II --- (424 - 423 BC)

The reign of this king was extremely brief and of almost no importance. There is very little known about him, and almost no reference to him in the pages of history.

DARIUS II --- (423 - 404 BC)

The reign of Darius II, which lasted 19 years, was one filled with intrigue and extreme corruption. The Greeks gave him the name Aothius, which means "The Bastard," since he was the illegitimate son of Artaxerxes.

Throughout his reign, revolts and rebellions were rampant. The Medes rebelled. The Egyptians rebelled, and even destroyed the places of worship which the Jews had built throughout the land. And during all this, the Persians were too weak to retaliate and put down the rebellion. The empire was well on its way out as a power to be feared and submitted to. Sogdianus followed Darius II with an extremely brief reign; one too insignificant to even warrant being listed with the other rulers.

ARTAXERXES II --- (404 - 358 BC)

Known also as Mnemon, Artaxerxes II was almost assassinated during his coronation ceremony at Persepolis by his brother Cyrus. At the request of his mother, Cyrus was pardoned instead of executed. However, Cyrus went out and raised an army and again tried to win the throne. This time he was killed in a battle with the forces of his brother the king. The account of Cyrus' Greek contingent in his rebel army (who were known as The Ten Thousand) was later immortalized by Xenophon in his book The Anabasis, which became one of the great books of military science in the ancient world.

The reign of Artaxerxes II was plagued with further rebellions against the Persian Empire, and further loss of territory. Egypt declared its independence, as did Cyprus, Phoenicia, and Syria. One after another the western satraps all fell away from the empire. Egypt, allying itself with Sparta and the rebellious satraps, decided to destroy Persia. They formed a large army and began to march toward the capital of the Persian Empire. However, a revolt against Pharaoh Takhos made it necessary for them to abandon their plans and return home. Although this major threat to the empire was averted, the disturbances and revolts continued until the death of Artaxerxes II in 358 BC.

ARTAXERXES III --- (358 - 338 BC)

When this son of Artaxerxes II took the throne, he determined to restore the power and prestige of the Empire, which was fast declining. Perhaps remembering what had happened to his father on his coronation day, Artaxerxes III began his reign by murdering all his brothers and sisters (several dozen in all). He then burned the city of Sidon to the ground for sympathizing with Egypt in their rebellion against the Empire. He soon captured Egypt and then tore down the walls of its principle cities.

Following this, the king turned his attention to Greece. The Greeks, fearing that Persia was on the rise again, formed an alliance with Artaxerxes in order to prevent war. Although many of the Greeks agreed with this strategy, others did not. Those who opposed this alliance with Persia, led by Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander (later to be known as Alexander the Great), overthrew Athens in 338 BC and gained control of Greece. That same year, an Egyptian eunuch, named Bagoas, murdered Artaxerxes III and all of his sons, except for the youngest, whose name was Arses.

ARSES --- (338 - 336 BC)

Bagoas, who had political ambitions of his own, spared Arses in the hope of using him as a puppet king. When Arses began showing signs of having a mind of his own, however, Bagoas poisoned him, just as he had his father. Arses died in the year 336 BC.

DARIUS III --- (336 - 332 BC)

In looking for someone to replace Arses as a puppet king, Bagoas chose a cousin of Artaxerxes III. However, Bagoas had chosen unwisely. The first act of Darius III was to have Bagoas poisoned. That same year, a twenty year old man by the name of Alexander ascended to the throne in faraway Macedonia with a commission from his father to destroy the kingdom of Persia. Alexander wasted no time. In just four short years he had defeated the mighty Persian Empire. Darius III fled to Bactria where he was murdered by his cousin Bessus. The year was 332 BC, and the Jews found themselves under new masters -- The Greeks!

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