The Decree of Darius (Ezra 5:3-6:13) July 26-27
The Jewish rebuilding project elicits an inquiry by Persian officials. The account here is not precisely dated. The phrase "at the same time" (5:3) tells us that it was close to the commencement of the project in the second year of Darius (4:24-5:2)—that is, 520-519 B.C. The foundation was newly laid in December of 520 B.C., as we saw in Haggai 2:18, and the visit of the Persian officials had to come after that because of the report of timber now being laid in the walls (Ezra 5:8). Zechariah's night visions, the subject of our previous readings (Zechariah 1:8-6:15), came in February of 519 B.C., two months after the new foundation was completed (see 1:8). The Persian visit might have come shortly before Zechariah's visions but it seems more likely to have come after them. Either way, the time required for the matter to reach the emperor, be researched and then responded to would place the conclusion of the matter several months later—definitely beyond Zechariah's night of visions (thus explaining the placement of our current reading).
The two leading figures in the official visit are "Tattenai the governor of the region beyond the River and Shethar-Boznai" (Ezra 1:3). The italicized words here, "the region," have actually been added to the text. The designation "Beyond the River" (Hebrew Abar nahar, equivalent to Aramaic Ebir-nari) was actually the proper name of the Persian province containing Syria and Judea. The name denoted the region west of the Euphrates from a Mesopotamian and Persian perspective. Confirming the accuracy of the biblical record, archaeologists have found "a document that can be dated to 5 June 502 B.C., which cites Ta-at-tanni as the pahat ('governor') who was subordinate to the satrap over Ebir-nari ['Beyond the River']. Shethar-Bozenai may have functioned as a Persian official known as the patifrasa ('inquisitor') or frasaka ('investigator")" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verses 3-5).
Just what brought the Persian sub-governor and his retinue is not stated. He may have simply been conducting a general inspection of his territory. However, it seems likely that the Persians had informants all over the place and that the activities in Judea would have caused regional authorities some concern. Moreover, given that there was a history of Samaritan antagonism and reporting to the imperial authorities, this may well have been another instance of it.
The Persian inquiry was conducted among the Jewish elders—probably a governing council (verse 9). It perhaps seems odd that Zerubbabel does not appear more prominently here. He is mentioned in the official Jewish response, evidently being referred to as Sheshbazzar (verses 14-16), which was probably his Persian name (see the Bible Reading Program comments on Ezra 1). And Darius specifically refers to him, though not by name (6:6). Why then does it appear in the passage that the Persian governor did not deal directly or particularly with him? And why did not Zerubbabel himself, rather than the Jewish elders, give the official response to Tattenai recorded in the letter to Darius? It is conceivable that the Jewish elders purposely downplayed the role of Zerubbabel.
As explained in the Bible Reading Program comments on Zechariah 4, Darius had recently put down a number of rebellions instigated by claimants to the royal thrones in various areas of the empire. As Zerubbabel was of the line of David, grandson of a former Jewish king, this may have been recognized as a potential Persian concern. In fact, as pointed out in the same comments, some of Haggai and Zechariah's prophecies might well have sparked rumors that Zerubbabel was the promised Messiah—further fueling the Persians' concerns if they learned of this. It would not be out of character for the Samaritans to have made an issue of this. Given the circumstances, perhaps Zerubbabel himself and the other Jewish leaders decided to downplay his role as a precaution. Whatever the reason, there is no hint that the position of Zerubbabel was even an issue at this time as far as Tattenai was concerned.
Verse 5 says that the Persian entourage "could not make [the Jews] cease till a report could go to Darius." Perhaps Tattenai's initial response called for a temporary halt to construction but the Jewish elders, now emboldened by the national spiritual renewal, did not just throw up their hands and comply. It is likely that they pressed the legality of their actions based on Cyrus' decree (we know this information came out at some point, as it appears in Tattenai's letter to Darius)—and Tattenai may have been satisfied with that until word came back from the emperor.
The decree of Cyrus would have been an enormously powerful factor in support of the Jewish rebuilding because of the Medo-Persian precedent of unchangeable law (see Daniel 6:8, 12, 15).
Historian Werner Keller writes: "The official exchange of letters with the Persian court on this matter can be found in the Book of Ezra (5:6-6:12). Many experts are convinced of the historicity of these documents although others are doubtful. If they are not genuine, however, they are very clever imitations both as to form and content. The Bible here even uses the Aramaic of the empire, the commercial language of the Achaemenide Empire"—that is, the Persian Empire ruled by the Achaemenid Dynasty (The Bible As History, 1981, pp. 303-304).
The reference to finding a copy of Cyrus' decree in Achmetha, the capital of Media more commonly referred to today as Ecbatana, is rather interesting. French archaeologist Roland de Vaux says: "Now we know that it was the custom of the Persian sovereigns to winter in Babylon and depart in the summer to Susa or Ecbatana...and we also know that Cyrus left Babylon in the spring of 538 B.C.... A forger operating in Palestine without the information which we possess could hardly have been so accurate" ("The Decrees of Cyrus and Darius on the Rebuilding of the Temple," The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 1971, p. 89, quoted by Expositor's, note on Ezra 6:2).
As verses 3-11 show, Darius endorses Cyrus' decree and even adds to it in his new decree, ordering that the Jews be left alone in their work, that the project be funded out of the taxes on the "Beyond the River" province, that the Persian state provide a steady stream of animals and other products necessary to the continued offerings of the Jewish national worship in Jerusalem, and that violation was punishable by death. The word "hanged" in verse 11 "does not mean hanged by the neck from a rope. It refers to impaling the dead body of the condemned on a pole as a public display and a grim warning to others" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 11-12).
Werner Keller states: "Numerous other contemporary texts confirm...the extent to which Darius fostered the indigenous [religions] of the peoples incorporated in his empire, not only in Palestine but also in Asia Minor and Egypt. For example the inscription of Usahor, an Egyptian doctor, runs as follows: 'King Darius—may he live for ever—commanded me to go to Egypt...and make up once more the number of the holy scribes of the temple and bring new life into what had fallen into decay....'" (p. 304). This happened about the same time as Darius' decree regarding Jerusalem, around 519 B.C. (see Expositor's, note on 6:12).
Illustrating his concern for local religious matters even above palace concerns, Darius wrote to Gadata, the steward of his estates, taking him to task over his attitude toward the sacredness of the temple of Apollo in Magnesia: "I hear that you are not carrying out my instructions properly. Admittedly you are taking trouble over my estates, in that you are transferring trees and plants from beyond the Euphrates to Asia Minor. I commend this project and the Court will show its gratitude. But in disregarding my attitude to the gods you have provoked my displeasure and unless you change your tactics you will feel its weight. For you have taken away the gardeners who are sacred to Apollo and used them for other gardening jobs of a secular character, thereby showing a lack of appreciation of the sentiments of my ancestors towards the god who has spoken to the Persians..." (quoted by Keller, p. 304).
Clearly, Darius' statements regarding the true God in his decree are no indication of any real belief regarding Him. This was more of a public policy issue. Yet how interesting it is that this was the Persian policy. And how remarkable it is that this turn of events came to pass at this particular point—just in time to enable the temple to be completed within the 70-year time frame God had foretold long before. And how wonderful an encouragement this was for the Jewish nation. They had returned to God. And now, as He promised, He returned to them (Zechariah 1:3)—looking out for their national welfare and blessing and ensuring it by the mouth of the most powerful man and greatest political power on earth.