The Command to Build

After the short reign of the False Smerdis, Darius Hystaspes became king of Persia. Josephus mentioned that there existed an old friendship between Darius and Zerubbabel, the governor over the Jewish exiles who had returned to Jerusalem. In the first year of Darius’ reign, Zerubbabel is said to have visited the king from Jerusalem.

During this visit Zerubbabel reminded the king of a vow Darius had made when he was a private citizen—that if he became king he would plan “to rebuild Jerusalem, and to build therein the temple of God, as also to restore the vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had pillaged, and carried to Babylon”  (Antiquities, XI, III, 7). Darius subsequently wrote to the toparchs and governors of the western Persian provinces, instructing them to assist Zerubbabel with the building of the temple. He also sent “letters to those rulers that were in Syria and Phoenicia to cut down and carry cedar trees from Lebanon to Jerusalem, and to assist him in building the city” (Antiquities, XI, III, 8).

Josephus concluded his comments on Darius as follows: “And all that Cyrus intended to do before him, relating to the restoration of Jerusalem, Darius also ordained should be done accordingly” (Ibid.).

The book of 1 Esdras affirmed this story (1 Esdras 3-6). From this is it clear that soon after Darius became king of Persia, he revived Cyrus’ command regarding the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple. Following Darius’ orders, the building activities were resumed. These efforts prospered under the ministry of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, along with the political and spiritual leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua (Ezra 5:1, 2). 

The Opposition

Soon, however, there was another attempt to interfere with the rebuilding. Several Persian officials in charge of the area beyond the Euphrates River visited the city and demanded to know who had authorized the rebuilding activities. The Jews stressed that all they were doing had been originally authorized by the decree of Cyrus. Tattenai, the Persian governor, wrote a letter to Darius, asking him to check this story out and see if indeed Cyrus issued such a decree (Ezra 5:7-17).

Upon further investigation Darius discovered that indeed Cyrus had issued a decree, giving the returning exile permission to rebuild. As a result Darius issued his own decree that affirmed Cyrus’ decree, and emphasized that the building of the temple should be paid out of the king’s treasury as well as the expenses of the sacrifices. The king stressed that no one should interfere with this building process. It was his desire that the Jewish priests “may offer sacrifices of sweet aroma to the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and his sons” (Ezra 6:10).

He ended his decree by stating that whoever alters this edict, “let a timber be pulled from his house and erected, and let him be hanged on it; and let his house be made a refuse heap because of this” (Ezra 6:11). The temple was finished in the 6th year of the reign of King Darius (Ezra 6:15).

The above events were also described in 1 Esdras 6 and 7. In addition, Josephus’ account stated that the Persian authorities questioned not only the rebuilding efforts regarding the temple, but also the walls about the city. These Persian authorities wrote to Darius about the current rebuilding going on in Jerusalem, and asked him to investigate whether these matters had been authorized.

The Jews became very concerned about this matter. Josephus wrote: “The Jews were now under terror, and afraid lest the king should change his resolution as to the building of Jerusalem, and of the temple” (Antiquities, XI, iv, 5). At that time the prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the Jewish exiles to be “of good cheer, and to expect no discouragement from the Persians, for that God foretold this to them” (Ibid.) This had a positive effect on the Jews’ efforts, and “they applied themselves earnestly to building, and did not intermit one day” (Ibid.).

When Darius had received the letter accusing the Jews “how they fortified their city, and built the temple,” and was shown the letter of the Persian king who had earlier stopped the building process, he made an investigation into the royal records. (Antiquities, XI, iv, 6) Upon locating Cyrus’ decree permitting the Jews to build the temple, Darius wrote a letter instructing the Persian officials to assist the Jews with the building of the temple, and to pay for the temple sacrifices from the taxes collected in their regions (Antiquities, XI, iv, 7).

One observes that Josephus’ account is very similar to that in Ezra and 1 Esdras, except he mentioned that the rebuilding of the city was also in progress.

In summary, we observe that Darius did not add anything to Cyrus’ decree about the rebuilding of the city and the temple. Darius was responsible for re-starting the interrupted rebuilding process by his decree, which essentially reaffirmed the decree of Cyrus.



Dr. P. Gerard Damsteegt is a retired professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.