“The Commandment to Restore and to Build Jerusalem”
Four different decrees have been considered as the possible application of this prophecy.
1. The decree of Cyrus recorded in Ezra 1:1-4.
In Jeremiah 29:10, God had promised, “After seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place.”
Ezra 1:1 says, “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom….”
The royal decree went forth in the year 536 B.C., at which time nearly 50,000 Jews returned to their homeland.
Two centuries earlier, God had appointed Cyrus for this task: “That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid.” Isaiah 44:28.
Recognizing in Isaiah’s prophecy a personal directive, Cyrus began his decree with these words, “The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.” Ezra 1:2.
Cyrus continued, “Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem.” Ezra 1:3.
This first decree authorized the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Ezra chapter 3 tells us that those who returned to Judea gathered in Jerusalem to observe the feast of tabernacles in the seventh month, and the following spring, “in the second month,” they “set forward the work of the house of the Lord” (verses 1, 4, 8).
After the foundation of the temple had been laid, “the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin,” “the people of the land,” being prohibited from participating in the project, “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.
“Then ceased the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalm. So it ceased unto the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.” Ezra 4:24.
When, under the inspiration of Haggai and Zechariah, the work on the temple was finally resumed, the governor of the region, with a group of other officials, came and asked the workers, “Who hath commanded you to build this house?” Ezra 5:3.
They replied, “In the first year of Cyrus the king of Babylon the same king Cyrus made a decree to build this house of God.” Ezra 5:13.
So the governor and his officials wrote a letter to King Darius I, saying, “If it seem good to the king, let there be search made in the king’s treasure house, which is there at Babylon, whether it be so, that a decree was made of Cyrus the king to build this house of God at Jerusalem, and let the king send his pleasure to us concerning this matter.” Ezra 5:17.
2. The decree of Darius I recorded in Ezra 6:1-12.
Because of the letter Darius received from the governor of the area west of the Euphrates, a search was made, and Cyrus’ original decree was found. Darius then issued his own decree, saying, “Let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews build this house of God in his place.” Darius instructed his governor to supply the Jews with money or whatever else they needed, that “the building of this house of God . . . be not hindered.” Ezra 6:7, 8.
Based on Ezra 4:24, this decree was probably issued in 520 B.C., the second year of the reign of Darius. With the hinderances now removed, the temple was completed in the sixth year of Darius (516 B.C.) on the third day of the twelfth month, and in the following month they kept the passover. Ezra 6:15, 19.
3. The decree of Artaxerxes I (Longimanus) recorded in Ezra 7:12-26.
King Artaxerxes, in the seventh year of his reign (457 B.C.), authorized Ezra the priest and scribe, and all who wished to join him, to go to Jerusalem. It was Ezra’s desire to instruct the Jews in the laws of God. Artaxerxes granted him large amounts of silver and gold to furnish the temple, and gave instruction that his treasurers on that side of the river should provide whatever was needed to beautify the Lord’s house.
In the decree, Artaxerxes commanded Ezra to “set magistrates and judges, which may judge all the people that are beyond the river, all such as know the laws of thy God; and teach ye them that know them not. And whosoever will not do the law of thy God, and the law of the king, let judgment be executed speedily upon him, whether it be unto death, or to banishment, or to confiscation of goods, or to imprisonment.” Ezra 7:25, 26.
Ezra left Babylon on the first day of the first month of Artaxerxes’ seventh year, and arrived in Jerusalem exactly four months later on the first day of the fifth month. Ezra 7:7-9. Three days later the gifts brought from Babylon were registered in the temple treasury, and sacrifices were offered to God. Ezra 8:32-35. Either at that time or shortly thereafter, “they delivered the king’s commissions unto the king’s lieutenants, and to the governors on this side the river.” Ezra 8:36.
Some time later, officials from the surrounding nations wrote a letter of skepticism to Artaxerxes, saying, “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.” Ezra 4:12. They went on to say that if the king would check the history of Jerusalem, he would find that it was a rebellious city which would not submit to Babylonian rule, and that is why it was destroyed. If it were allowed to be rebuilt, the king would have the same problems again. Ezra 4:13-16.
Artaxerxes checked the records, and discovered that old Jerusalem had indeed made insurrection, rebellion and sedition against kings. So he issued a new command that the work of building should stop until he gave further word. Ezra 4:17-22.
4. The decree of Artaxerxes mentioned in Nehemiah chapters 1 and 2.
The story of Nehemiah begins in the 20th year of Artaxerxes’ reign. Nehemiah, a Jew, was the king’s cupbearer. One day some of his brethren from Judah arrived in Shushan where king’s palace was. Nehemiah inquired of them about the condition of things in Jerusalem.
“The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach,” they replied. “The wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.”
Nehemiah sat down and wept. For several days he mourned and fasted and prayed. His prayer is remarkably similar to that of Daniel in Daniel 9. He prayed that somehow God would “grant him mercy in the sight of” the king.
Four months later, Nehemiah was serving wine to the king, and Artaxerxes noticed a sadness on Nehemiah’s countenance. “Why is thy countenance sad?” the king asked.
Nehemiah explained that Jerusalem was still in ruins, the wall and the gates were still not repaired. When the king asked what he would like to do, Nehemiah answered, “If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may build it.”
Artaxerxes consented, and sent with him letters for the governors of the region, authorizing the rebuilding project. This commission was issued in the spring of 444 B.C., in Artaxerxes’ 20th year of reign.
Evaluating the four decrees
Daniel 9:25 says, “Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.”
This is an important verse to understand. It is the only prophecy in the Bible which tells us precisely when the Messiah would arrive. It is extremely vital therefore to know exactly when that time period began.
The event to mark the beginning of the seventy weeks is stated to be “the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem.” But to which “commandment” does it refer? We have just seen that there were four different decrees, all of which seem quite similar. If we use the wrong starting point, the whole prophecy will be off.
As always, it is essential to pay close attention to the words of the text. We are looking for a command to “restore and to build Jerusalem.” The decree of Cyrus, recorded in Ezra 1, gave instruction only for the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. It said nothing about restoring the whole city. The decree of Darius, recorded in Ezra 6, was simply his endorsement of the decree of Cyrus. It mentioned only the building of the “house of God.” But in the decree of Artaxerxes, recorded in Ezra 7, provision is made for the complete restoration of the Jewish state, including the right to appoint magistrates and judges, hold trials, and pass and execute sentence upon violators of their own national laws.
This was clearly understood to be an authorization for the full reestablishment of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation; for shortly after this the enemies of the Jews wrote to the king complaining 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” Ezra 4:12. That the walls had been completely set up was obviously an exaggeration, as verse 13 reveals. Yet this incident shows that for the first time there was actual work being done to rebuild the city. This had not been the case under the previous decrees.
The fourth decree (Nehemiah 2), the wording of which has not been preserved, was simply a reinstatement of Artaxerxes’ original authorization, this time naming Nehemiah to take charge of the project.
Considering all the options, the decree which most correctly answers to the specifications of Daniel 9:25 was the decree of Artaxerxes to Ezra, recorded in Ezra chapter 7. We should therefore date the beginning of the 70 week prophecy of Daniel 9 from the time of that command.
Determining the date of the decree
The dates for Artaxerxes’ reign are well documented in the ancient sources. These sources include the Greek historians, Ptolemy’s Canon, the Babyonian business tablets, and the Elephantine papyri from Egypt. From these documents we know that Xerxes was killed in late December of 465 B.C., and the reign of Artaxerxes began at that time.
The decree to restore and build Jerusalem was issued in the seventh year of Artaxerxes’ reign (Ezra 7:7, 8).
The book of Ezra was written in Jerusalem for the Jews. It would be natural that he would use the Jewish method of reckoning in numbering the years. Whereas the Babylonians and Persians began their years in the spring, the Jews counted their civil year as beginning in the fall (SeeDetermining Biblical Dates). This means that Artaxerxes’ accession year, according to the Jewish method of reckoning, extended until the fall of 464 B.C., at which time his first year of reign began. His seventh year is thus determined as follows:
||Fall to Fall
Therefore, the seventh year of Artaxerxes, according to Jewish reckoning, extended from the fall of 458 to the fall of 457 B.C.
Although the Jews began their civil calendar year in the fall, and the reigns of kings were counted according to that calendar, the numbering of months was always in reference to the spring. Thus their civil year began in the “seventh” month and ended in the “sixth” month. As an example, notice Artaxerxes’ 20th year as recorded in the book of Nehemiah. News of the condition of things in Jerusalem came to Nehemiah in Artaxerxes’ 20th year, in the month of Chisleu or Kislev which was the 9th month (Nehemiah 1:1). But later, when Nisan, the 1st month, came, it was still Artaxerxes’ 20th year (Nehemiah 2:1).
With that understanding, we may now determine quite closely the beginning of the 70-week prophecy. Ezra 7:9 tells us that Ezra left Babylon on the first day of the first month, which was probably early April depending upon the moon and the barley harvest. He arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, which would then be early August, 457 B.C. We are not exactly certain of the date in which the king’s commission was delivered to the king’s lieutenants and governors, but we may be quite certain that it was at least August of that year.
As noted in our comments on Daniel 9:25, the significant point in the decree to rebuild Jerusalem was not when it was signed by Artaxerxes, but rather when it went into effect, after Ezra arrived in Jerusalem. The decree was useless until the Jews were actually made aware of it and could act upon it. Until they and the governors east of the river heard it, the decree had not fully “gone forth.” Therefore, we begin the prophecy of Daniel 9 in the late summer or early fall of the year 457 B.C.