As the people of God always do when they seek to obey Him, the Jews who returned from exile faced opposition as they rebuilt the temple. Tattenai, an official who was above Judah’s governor Zerubbabel in the Persian hierarchy, demanded to know who authorized the Jews to reconstruct their sanctuary. The Jews responded, explaining that Cyrus the Great had sent them back to Judah to rebuild the temple and that the work had begun under the governor Sheshbazzar. (Sheshbazzar was either another name for Zerubbabel or a Jewish governor prior to Zerubbabel who was in office only a short time.) So, Tattenai sent a letter to Emperor Darius I to find out if the Jews were telling the truth (Ezra 5).
In today’s passage, we learn that Darius searched the royal archives and found evidence confirming the Jews’ story. Darius’ officials found this proof in Ecbatana, one of the cities of the Persian Empire where the emperors lived for part of each year. So, Darius replied to Tattenai, instructing him to allow the Jews to proceed (6:1–12).
The record of Cyrus’ decree and Darius’ letter are notable for a couple of reasons. First, the specificity of temple measurements and instructions for the temple provisions show that Jews in Persia had a hand in shaping these documents (vv. 3–4, 9). Second, the concern that the temple be rebuilt accurately confirms what we know from other historical records about the Persian policy toward the peoples they ruled. The Persians wanted their subjects to worship their own gods according to their own laws, partly as a means of keeping these peoples content and less likely to rebel. But they also wanted their subjects to intercede with their gods on their behalf. After all, according to ancient polytheism, the more gods who looked favorably upon you, the better off you were. Darius asked for the Jews to pray for him not because he was committed to the God of Israel as the only true God but because he was covering his bases (v. 10).
Finally, in the decree of Darius, the Lord brought good out of evil. Not only was the Jews’ mission to rebuild the temple confirmed, but they also received additional supplies from Darius to complete the work. Taxes from the province “Beyond the River,” Tattenai’s entire district, including territories besides Judah, would pay for the project (vv. 8–9; see 5:3). As in the days of Joseph, what others meant for evil, God meant for good for His people (see Gen. 50:20). Tattenai’s opposition ended up advancing the temple project.