“And the God that hath caused his name to dwell there destroy all kings and people, that shall put to their hand to alter and to destroy this house of God which is at Jerusalem. I Darius have made a decree; let it be done with speed.”
It could be argued that Persia’s power and influence reached its zenith during the reign of Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes. Darius played a central role in the Jewish people’s reestablishment of Jerusalem and the temple service. By his sixth year of rule the Second Temple, the very heart of Jerusalem, was completed, nearly sixteen years after permission to build it had first been given by Cyrus.
Darius was the third Persian ruler after Cyrus the Great. Cyrus died in 530 BC, and his son Cambyses II ruled for eight years. For a short period after Cambyses’s death, Bardis the Magian usurper (aka Smerdis) ruled. This imposter, by some accounts, was a double for Cambyses II’s murdered brother. When Cambyses died, Bardis, who was already impersonating the brother of Cambyses II, took the game to a whole new level and assumed the throne as Artaxerxes of Persia. After ruling for less than a year, he was deposed by Darius ‘the Great’, son of Hystaspes, also known historically as Artaxerxes (Ezra 6:14. See also Ussher, Annals of the World, page 126, section 1015.)
Trouble in the Promised Land
To understand the decree given by Darius ‘the Great’, we need to back up a bit and give a little history of the Jewish people’s efforts to rebuild the temple after the decree of Cyrus. Believe it or not, after the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem in 536 BC, for the next sixteen years they didn’t get much further than making an altar and laying some foundation stones for the temple. There were two causes for this.
First, the inhabitants of the land harassed their building efforts. They saw the temple as the essence of a reestablished Jewish nation-state, and they understood how this threatened their power and influence in the region. One only has to read today’s headlines to understand how this same dynamic is once again in play today. A few verses are sufficient to illustrate what happened.
Now in the second year of their coming unto the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, began Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and the remnant of their brethren . . . to set forward the work of the house of YHWH. (Ezra 3:8)
Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity builded the temple unto YHWH God of Israel . . . Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building, and hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. (Ezra 4:1–5)
Here’s how it went down: Cyrus made the initial decree that allowed the Jewish people to rebuild the temple. In the second year of their return, they began work on the temple, but they only got part of the foundation laid before Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the “rest of their companions” started harassing their building efforts. This harassment continued all the way to the reign of Darius ‘the Great’.
Many biblical scholars have a hard time with Persian era chronology because they have refused to take the biblical account at face value. In secular Persian history, we have the following four kings from Cyrus to Darius:
- Cyrus (king over Babylon) for seven years (536–530 BC)
- Cambyses II (his son) for eight years (529–522 BC)
- Bardis (aka Smerdis) the usurper for part of a year (522 BC)
- Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes for thirty-six years (521–486 BC)
Now compare this to what the Bible says in Ezra chapters 1–6. We already know that Cyrus gave the initial decree that allowed construction to commence on the temple in 536 BC. In Ezra 4, we learn that the enemies of the Jews in the beginning of the reign of Ahasuerus petitioned him with accusations against the Jewish people’s building efforts. This Ahasuerus is likely Cambyses II, the son of Cyrus. That being the case, it is likely the efforts to stop construction fell on unsympathetic ears. From what we know historically, Cambyses II mostly continued in his father’s footsteps until his unexpected death during his Egyptian campaign. It is worth noting that one of the Elephantine Papyri published by Professor Sachau of Berlin in 1911 records that while Cambyses tore down temples of the Egyptian gods at Elephantine, he preserved the temple of YHWH that had been constructed there.
And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, wrote they unto him an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. (Ezra 4:6)
With their petition to stop construction having no effect, the enemies of the Jewish people continued their harassment. It wasn’t until a new king came to power in Persia, one whom Ezra 4:7 identifies only as “Artaxerxes,” that the enemies of the Jewish people were able to officially stop construction of the temple. This new king was likely the Magian imposter who assumed the throne on Cambyses’s death. This imposter is known historically as Bardis, Smerdis, or Gaumata. Notice especially in the passage below that the building of the “city” is described in the context of building the temple.
And in the days of Artaxerxes wrote Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of their companions, unto Artaxerxes king of Persia . . . This is the copy of the letter that they sent unto him, even unto Artaxerxes the king; Thy servants the men on this side the river, and at such a time. Be it known unto the king, that the Jews which came up from thee to us are come unto Jerusalem, building the rebellious and the bad city, and have set up the walls thereof, and joined the foundations . . .
We certify the king that, if this city be builded again, and the walls thereof set up, by this means thou shalt have no portion on this side the river. Then sent the king an answer unto Rehum the chancellor, and to Shimshai the scribe, and to the rest of their companions that dwell in Samaria, and unto the rest beyond the river, Peace, and at such a time . . .
Give ye now commandment to cause these men to cease, and that this city be not builded, until another commandment shall be given from me . . ..Then ceased the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem. So it ceased unto the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia. (Ezra 4:7–24, emphasis mine)
As the ancient Athenian author Xenophon records in his Cyropaedia (8.3.11 and 3.1.23), the Magians were polytheistic sun worshipers. If this imposter was the Artaxerxes of Ezra 4:7–24 as a chronological reading of Ezra would suggest, then as a Magian he would not have shared the same religious or political worldview as Cyrus and Cambyses. In light of the Jewish monotheistic worldview, this might, in part, explain his desire to see construction on the temple stopped.
Historically, there were only two Persian kings between Cyrus the Great and Darius ‘the Great’. The biblical account confirms this by identifying them as Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes (Ezra 4).
Now that we have a better idea of the events that transpired between the reign of Cyrus and Darius, let’s look at the decree of Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes.
A Decree to Restart Construction of Jerusalem
To briefly recap, we have learned that Cyrus gave the initial decree that allowed the Jewish people to return and build Jerusalem and the temple. The enemies of the Jewish people tried to stop construction of the temple at the start of the reign of Ahasuerus (Cambyses II) with little success. When Cambyses II died, they approached Artaxerxes (Bardis, aka Smerdis, the Magian usurper), who granted them permission to stop construction. After just a few months, Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes deposed the usurper and assumed the throne as king of Persia.
Shortly thereafter, a game-changing event took place in the affairs of the Jewish people. Ezra 5 gives us the details:
Then the prophets, Haggai the prophet, and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied unto the Jews that were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, even unto them. Then rose up Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and began to build the house of God which is at Jerusalem: and with them were the prophets of God helping them. (Ezra 5:1–2)
At this point we are in the second year of Darius ‘the Great’ of Persia. Haggai and Zechariah, the prophets, prophesied to Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua (“Jeshua” here in Ezra) the high priest to restart construction of the temple after the Artaxerxes of Ezra 4:7 had stopped it. The Jewish people listened to the prophets and once again started working on the temple. This caused the enemies of the Jews to freak out. They immediately sent letters to Darius in protest, thinking he would support their cause and stop construction. Darius decreed that a search should be made for the original decree of Cyrus which allowed the Jews to return and build. The decree was found, and Darius, to the consternation of the Jews’ enemies, allowed construction to proceed. Not only that, but Darius helped the construction efforts along by providing resources from his royal treasury.
Then Darius the king made a decree, and search was made in the house of the rolls, where the treasures were laid up in Babylon. And there was found at Achmetha, in the palace that is in the province of the Medes, a roll, and therein was a record thus written: In the first year of Cyrus the king the same Cyrus the king made a decree concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, Let the house be builded, the place where they offered sacrifices, and let the foundations thereof be strongly laid. (Ezra 6:1–3)
Now therefore, Tatnai, governor beyond the river, Shetharboznai, and your companions the Apharsachites, which are beyond the river, be ye far from thence: Let the work of this house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews build this house of God in his place. Moreover I make a decree what ye shall do to the elders of these Jews for the building of this house of God: that of the king’s goods, even of the tribute beyond the river, forthwith expenses be given unto these men, that they be not hindered. (Ezra 6:6–8)
Also I have made a decree, that whosoever shall alter this word, let timber be pulled down from his house, and being set up, let him be hanged thereon; and let his house be made a dunghill for this. And the God that hath caused his name to dwell there destroy all kings and people, that shall put to their hand to alter and to destroy this house of God which is at Jerusalem. I Darius have made a decree; let it be done with speed. Then Tatnai, governor on this side the river, Shetharboznai, and their companions, according to that which Darius the king had sent, so they did speedily. (Ezra 6:11–13)
Ouch! Reminiscent of Esther and Haman, isn’t it? I’ll bet the enemies of the Jewish people didn’t see that coming! Darius, the king of Persia, made it clear that anyone hindering the efforts of the Jewish people to rebuild the temple was to be put to death. He further decreed that resources from his own royal treasury were to be used to help the building efforts. Just four years later the temple, the very heart of Jerusalem’s religious system, and the city itself were finished and dedicated. Thanks in part to this decree by Darius ‘the Great’, the Second Temple era of the Jewish people officially began.
Testing the Second Decree
So how does this commandment or decree given by Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes to the Jewish people stand in light of our four questions?
- Could this decree be considered a dabar or word to return and build Jerusalem?
- Did this decree cause the Jewish people to shuwb (return or turn back) and build Jerusalem?
- Was this building event of enough relevance to constitute building Jerusalem?
- Can the date of this decree be firmly established in the biblical and secular record?
- This decree came the same year YHWH’s divine anger ended.
- The date for this decree (520 BC) is well established in the historical and biblical record.
- Based upon Isaiah 44, Ezra 4, and Daniel 9:1–23, we can see that building the temple was in fact the focal point in rebuilding Jerusalem.
- Only in the loosest sense could this decree by Darius be considered a “word” or dabar to restore and build.
- Darius’s decree did not instruct the Israelites to “return and build” because they were already working on the temple in obedience to the prophesying of Zechariah and Haggai. His decree simply allowed what had already begun to continue.
- It would seem difficult if not impossible to stretch the 70 sevens from the second year of Darius (520 BC) until the coming of Yeshua the Messiah. Although it’s getting closer, it’s still a difference of some thirty years to Yeshua’s birth and sixty to His death.
Once again we have reached an impasse. Though this decree by Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes has some attractive aspects to it as a candidate for the prophecy’s fulfillment, it also has many challenges that seem to disqualify it from consideration. Again, let us withhold judgment until we have weighed all the evidence.
To further that pursuit, we now turn our attention to the third decree given by a Persian ruler, one whom the Bible identifies simply by the title of Artaxerxes. This is where the biblical record gets truly fascinating—and complicated.
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