A Pivotal Date in History
JEHOVAH GOD is an accurate timekeeper. He sets the times for events in the carrying out of his purposes, and sees to it that they take place exactly on time. He gives us an accurate record, timewise, of his dealings with mankind. Not only does this serve for historical purposes, but it also enables us to determine the time for the fulfillment of some of his prophecies. It also helps us to check our understanding of prophecy by adding chronological testimony to the evidence of the physical facts, the things we see taking place before our eyes.
The Bible gives us chronological information on all of its important events. In order to know when these events occurred in relation to our time, we must reliably and unmistakably fix a Bible event with a date in history. In other words, we must find a Bible event that happened on a certain date according to our calendar. Having fixed that point of time, we can then take the Bible chronology from there, figuring forward or backward, and establish the many other dates to which the Bible makes reference.
Considering the events that are recorded in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, there is one date that fully satisfies these requirements for a pivotal date. About other historical events mentioned in those times there are many disputes, but this date is one that can be well established from historical records. It provides us with a starting point by which we can place in our calendar the events referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures and also have corroboration for the fulfillment of some of the prophecies. That date is 537 B.C.E., the date of the decree of Cyrus the Persian giving permission to the Jews to return to their native land. The record of this event is found at Ezra 1:1-4:
“And in the first year of Cyrus the king of Persia, that Jehovah’s word from the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, Jehovah roused the spirit of Cyrus the king of Persia so that he caused a cry to pass through all his realm, and also in writing, saying: ‘This is what Cyrus the king of Persia has said, “All the kingdoms of the earth Jehovah the God of the heavens has given me, and he himself has commissioned me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God prove to be with him. So let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of Jehovah the God of Israel—he is the true God—which was in Jerusalem. As for anyone that is left from all the places where he is residing as an alien, let the men of his place assist him with silver and with gold and with goods and with domestic animals along with the voluntary offering for the house of the true God, which was in Jerusalem.”’”
WHEN KING CYRUS’ REIGN BEGAN
The Bible relates that 42,360 Jews left Babylon, along with 7,337 men slaves and slave girls, and 200 male and female singers. (Ezra 2:1-67) This decree concerning Jerusalem could be made by Cyrus, because, in conquering Babylon in 539 B.C.E., he got possession, not only of Babylonia itself, but also of all its foreign holdings, including Syria, Palestine and the part of Assyria that Cyrus did not already hold. But it did not apply to the fugitive Jews in Egypt, for it was not added to the Persian Empire until after Cyrus’ death, in the days of his son and successor Cambyses. Secular historians give us the date 539 B.C.E. as marking the downfall of Babylon, the Third World Power, to the Medes and Persians, the Persian Empire becoming the Fourth World Power. At Daniel 5:30, 31 it is shown that Darius the Mede ruled first at Babylon immediately after its fall. Daniel, at Babylon, speaks of the “first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus of the seed of the Medes, who had been made king over the kingdom of the Chaldeans.” (Dan. 9:1; 11:1; 6:1, 6, 9, 25, 28) The liberation decree was not made in this year, for it was in this year that Daniel studied the release to come at the end of the seventy years. (Dan. 9:1-18) So with at least one year and possibly a part of a second year for Darius the Mede, the first year of King Cyrus the Persian may not have begun until the year 538 B.C.E., to extend into the following year, 537 B.C.E.a
The Jews, of course, left Babylon as quickly as possible after Cyrus’ decree, for, by reason of their knowledge of Jehovah’s prophecies by Jeremiah and Isaiah, they had prepared in advance for departure. But it would take some time to complete all preparations for 49,897 people, and it was a good four months’ journey back to the land of Judah. They arrived there just before the seventh month, Tishri. (Ezra 2:70; 3:1) Therefore, the decree of Cyrus must have been made toward the close of winter and the beginning of spring of 537 B.C.E.b This date plays a very important role for all Bible students, for by it we can fix the time of the beginning of the desolation of the land of Judah and the beginning of the “times of the Gentiles,” or, “the appointed times of the nations.”—Luke 21:24, AV; NW.c
That the seventy years of desolation were to be ended as a result of Cyrus’ decree is plainly stated at 2 Chronicles 36:20-23:
“Furthermore, [Nebuchadnezzar] carried off those remaining from the sword captive to Babylon, . . . to fulfill Jehovah’s word by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had paid off its sabbaths. All the days of lying desolated it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years. And in the first year of Cyrus the king of Persia, that Jehovah’s word by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, Jehovah roused the spirit of Cyrus the king of Persia, so that he caused a cry to pass through all his kingdom, and also in writing, . . . ”
Cyrus’ decree was recorded in the official records of Persia, as shown in Ezra 6:1-5, where Darius I the Persian, successor to Cambyses the son of Cyrus, had the records searched and found the scroll with the decree written within it, at Ecbatana (Achmetha, AV), which was the former capital of Media and the summer residence of King Cyrus, northeast of Babylon.
WHEN THE SEVENTY-YEAR DESOLATION ENDED
Did the decree of Cyrus itself end the seventy-year desolation of Jerusalem and the land of Judah? No. Why not? The exiled Jews had to take advantage of the decree and leave Babylon and go back to their homeland and reoccupy it in order to end this desolation. For various reasons, such as old age, some Jews were not able to go back; but many others had become well established in highly materialistic Babylonia, and they preferred to remain in comfort rather than to exert themselves and suffer the hardships of traveling across a forbidding terrain to a land absolutely desolate. But the remnant of faithful Jews that returned were eager to obey Jehovah’s command. They were zealous for true worship at the place where he had put his name. They wanted to get away from unclean Babylon in order to be clean to bear Jehovah’s sacred vessels of worship back to the site of his holy temple.—Isa. 52:11; Jer. 50:8; 51:6.
Cyrus appointed Sheshbazzar as governor of the returning Jews and entrusted him with the delivering of the sacred utensils. At Ezra 3:2, 8 Sheshbazzar is identified with Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, a descendant of King David. (Matt. 1:6-13) The Jewish high priest Joshua (or Jeshua) the son of Jehozadak accompanied Governor Zerubbabel back to the site of Jerusalem.
When the Jews returned to Judah there was no one in the land to keep them out, for God had by his power preserved the land unoccupied in order that it might enjoy the sabbath years of complete rest as it deserved, with no one on it to cultivate it. Every year of its lying desolate was the equivalent of a sabbath year according to Jehovah’s law through Moses. (Lev. 25:1-12) How was this an exactly accurate fulfillment of the seventy-years time prophecy? Well, it was in the seventh month of the year of Jerusalem’s destruction that the land of Judah was left completely desolate by the flight of the poor Jews who had not been deported by Nebuchadnezzar. In the seventh month they fled, taking the prophet Jeremiah with them down to Egypt. (2 Ki. 25:22-26; Jer. 41:1 to 43:8) That was also the very month in which sabbath years and Jubilee years began, namely, “in the seventh month on the tenth of the month; on the day of atonement.” (Lev. 25:9, 10) The statement at Ezra 3:1: “When the seventh month [Tishri] arrived the sons of Israel were in their cities,” gives official corroboration of the exact fulfillment of this prophecy.
WHEN JERUSALEM’S DESOLATION BEGAN
Bible students are concerned with the time of the desolation of Judah and Jerusalem. With this pivotal date established, it is easy to go back seventy years from the seventh month of the year 537 to the seventh month of 607 B.C.E. as the time of the desolation of Jerusalem and Judah. In 607 B.C.E., the month of Tishri began on September 22/23, the day for the observance of the festival of the new moon. It was in that month of 607 B.C.E. that the “seven times,” or, “the times of the Gentiles,” “the appointed times of the nations,” began. (Dan. 4:16, 23, 25, 32; Luke 21:24, AV; NW) This was two months after Jerusalem had been destroyed and its temple plundered, wrecked and burned down, after which its two principal priests were killed.—2 Ki. 25:5-21.
If we follow the accurate timekeeping of Jehovah God as recorded in his Word, we see that the desolation of Judah ran from 607 to 537 B.C.E. and will thereby avoid making the mistake of the chronologers of Christendom who ignore the prophecy of the seventy years’ desolation and date Jerusalem’s destruction as occurring in 587 B.C.E. They limit the desolation of Jerusalem and the land of Judah to merely fifty years, accepting the unreliable calculations of pagan historians rather than the infallible Word of God.—2 Chron. 36:19-23.
Eleven years before Jerusalem was destroyed and the land of Judah was desolated, Jeremiah saw the returning remnant in a vision as a basket of “good figs.” The zealous repatriates were like these figs, because they went back to reestablish the pure worship of Jehovah in the place where he had put his name. At Jeremiah 24:1-7 Jehovah says: “I shall certainly cause them to return to this land. And I will build them up, and I shall not tear down; and I will plant them, and I shall not uproot. And I will give them a heart to know me, that I am Jehovah; and they must become my people, and I myself shall become their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.”
TRUE WORSHIP REINSTITUTED
As foretold 200 years beforehand, at Isaiah 44:28, Cyrus had, in effect, shepherded Jehovah’s sheep back to their proper fold in the land of Judah. Jehovah here also foretold the laying of the temple foundation. In the seventh month, just after their arrival, it was too early to have the foundation laid, but this did not delay the resumption of Jehovah’s worship. They were surrounded by bitter enemy nations, but they went ahead first with building an acceptable altar, as we read:
“And Jeshua the son of Jehozadak and his brothers the priests and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brothers proceeded to rise up and build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer up burnt sacrifices upon it, according to what is written in the law of Moses the man of the true God. So they established the altar firmly upon its own site, for fright came upon them because of the peoples of the lands, and they began offering up burnt sacrifices to Jehovah upon it, the burnt sacrifices of the morning and of the evening. Then they held the festival of booths according to what is written, with the burnt sacrifices day by day in number according to the rule of what was due each day. And afterward there was the constant burnt offering and that for the new moons and for all the sanctified festival seasons of Jehovah and for everyone that willingly offered a voluntary offering to Jehovah.”—Ezra 3:2-5.
At Ezra 3:6 it is stated: “From the first day of the seventh month on they started to offer up burnt sacrifices to Jehovah, when the foundation of Jehovah’s temple itself had not yet been laid.” This would be, according to the Gregorian Calendar, on September 28/29, of 537 B.C.E.d So on the first day of the month they celebrated the new moon of the seventh month of that year. (Num. 10:10; 28:11; 1 Sam. 20:5, 18, 24) On the fifteenth day of that month they kept God’s law by beginning the seven-day festival of the booths, the festival of the ingathering. (Lev. 23:33-43; Ex. 23:16; 34:22) These “holy conventions” were undoubtedly most joyful celebrations for the faithful remnant of Jews, along with their companions the Nethinim who had returned with them, and who served in connection with the altar by procuring wood and water.—Ezra 2:70.
TEMPLE FOUNDATION LAID
Now Jehovah’s prophecy had to come true concerning the temple: “You will have your foundation laid.” It did:
“And in the second year [536 B.C.E.] of their coming to the house of the true God at Jerusalem, in the second month [Ziv or Iyyar, the month in which King Solomon had begun building the first temple], Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jehozadak and the rest of their brothers, the priests and the Levites, and all those who had come out of the captivity to Jerusalem started; and they now put in positions the Levites from twenty years of age upward to act as supervisors over the work of the house of Jehovah. . . . When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of Jehovah, then the priests in official clothing, with the trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaph, with the cymbals, stood up to praise Jehovah according to the direction of David the king of Israel. . . . And many of the priests and the Levites and the heads of the paternal houses, the old men that had seen the former house [built by Solomon], were weeping with a loud voice at the laying of the foundation of this house before their eyes, while many others were raising the voice in shouting for joy.” This confusion of sounds was heard far away.—Ezra 3:8-13.
But this work was not done without difficulty. Only clean, dedicated hands could have a share in rebuilding Jehovah’s house, so the people of the lands round about were denied a share in the work. They began to interfere with the building. They used every possible means to “frustrate their counsel all the days of Cyrus the king of Persia down till the reign of Darius the king of Persia.” (Ezra 4:1-5) Finally they procured an edict from the king of Persia ordering the Jews to stop building. “It was then that the work on the house of God, which was in Jerusalem, stopped; and it continued stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius the king of Persia.” (Ezra 4:6-24) This is, of course, not Darius the Mede, but King Darius I the Persian, who began ruling the empire in 522 B.C.E.
In our next two issues we shall see that the enemies of God could not really thwart the rebuilding of the temple and of Jerusalem itself, also accurately timed by Jehovah. But the foregoing is sufficient to prove that the date 537 B.C.E. is a very important one. To Jehovah’s mind and likewise to the faithful remnant of Jews who returned from Babylon, it was important at that time. It is important to Bible students, for by means of it they can determine the length of time that man has been on the earth, the time of the flood of Noah’s day, of the making of the Abrahamic covenant, of the Exodus from Egypt, of the forty years’ wandering of Israel in the wilderness and of numerous other vitally important Bible events. It is important to every one of us, for by it we can corroborate the evidence of the physical facts taking place showing the end of the “seven times,” “the appointed times of the nations” and the establishment of God’s kingdom under Christ, in the heavens, in 1914 C.E.
a On page 404 of Volume 4, The Jewish Encyclopedia says: “Cyrus always conformed to the traditions of the thrones he usurped, and, together with his son Cambyses, rendered homage to the native deities. On the first day of the year, Nisan 1 (March 20), 538, in conformity with Babylonian custom, he grasped the hands of the golden statue of Bel-Marduk, and thus became consecrated as monarch. From this ceremony dates the first year of his reign as ‘King of Babylon, King of all the Lands.’” Cyrus thus had himself proclaimed as king of Babylon and as the legitimate successor to the deposed King Nabonidus. By doing this he did not have to reconquer the Babylonian Empire. Babylon’s foreign possessions, Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine and the borderlands of the desert, all came to be tributary to Cyrus.—See The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (1956), page 75, paragraph 3.
b If we proceed according to the cuneiform inscriptions, rather than the Bible, we have to take the position that Darius the Mede and Cyrus the Persian reigned concurrently for a time. According to this, the accession year (an incomplete lunar year) of Cyrus as king of Babylon began on October 23 of 539 B.C.E., when he entered the city (by day) after its capture by his troops. Hence his first regnal year (a full lunar year) began on Nisan 1 of 538 B.C.E., or on March 17/18 of 538 B.C.E., Gregorian time.
The cuneiform tablet entitled “Strassmaier, Cyrus No. 11” mentions Cyrus’ first regnal year. By this tablet it is calculated that this year began March 17/18, 538 B.C.E., and it ended on March 4/5 of 537 B.C.E., Gregorian time. So Cyrus’ second regnal year began the next day, on March 5/6, 537 B.C.E. In this case Cyrus’ decree must have been made before this latter date that is, late in the year 538 or early in 537 B.C.E. See pages 14, 29 of Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C.-A.D. 75, edition of 1956, by Parker and Dubberstein.
c For further details on the authenticity of the date 537 B.C.E. and the desolation of Judah and “times of the Gentiles,” see the books “Babylon the Great Has Fallen!” God’s Kingdom Rules! and “Your Will Be Done on Earth” by Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, Brooklyn, New York.
d Or, according to the Julian Calendar, October 4/5, 537 B.C.E. See Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C.–A.D. 75 (edition of 1956), by Parker and Dubberstein, page 29.