42,360 was the number of Jews who returned to their own land by the permission of Cyrus. They were under the keeping of Joshua the High Priest, and of Zerubbabel, son of Salathiel, who was either by birth, son of King Jehoiachin, or else had been adopted by him from the line of Nathan, son of David. In either way, he was head of the house of David, and would have been king, had not the crown been taken away because of the sin of his fathers. He had, it is said, won favour at the court of Darius the Mede by his cleverness in a contention of wits, where each man was asked what was the strongest thing in existence. One said it was wine, because it made men lose their senses; another said it was the king, because of his great power; but Zerubbabel said it was woman, and so ingeniously proved how women could sway the minds of men, that the king was delighted, and promised to give him whatever he would ask. What Zerubbabel requested was, that the decree of Cyrus might at once be put in force, so that his people might go home to their own country. Darius consented, and put into his hands orders that the vessels of the Temple, and all the other sacred things, together with a large sum of money, should be given to him; and thus he went forth, praising and blessing God. Some of the dispersed of Israel joined the returning Jews, and were thenceforth counted among them; but so many of Judah itself had become settled in the place of their exile, that they never returned, though they sent gifts to assist in rebuilding Jerusalem. It used to be said that only the bran, or coarse sort of people, returned, the fine flour remained; but it must have in truth been in general the lovers of ease who stayed, the faithful who loved poverty in the Promised Land better than wealth at Babylon.
Zerubbabel was called Tirshatha, or governor. His kingdom was gone, but his right remained to the fields of Boaz and Jesse at Bethlehem; and thence should "He come forth Whose goings are from everlasting." The true birthright was not lost by this son of Solomon, whom God blessed by the lips of Zechariah for having laid the foundation of His Temple, and not having despised the day of small things. The blessings to the Priest, Joshua, were foreshadowings of Him Whose Name he bore, and Whose office he represented.
All was ruin and desolation; heaps of stones lay where beauteous buildings had been, and the fields and vineyards lay waste; but glad promises came by the mouth of Zechariah, that these empty streets should yet be filled with merry children at play, and with aged men leaning on their staves, at peace and at ease.
The first thing done by these faithful men, was to set up an Altar among the ruins, where they might offer the daily sacrifice once more. Then they began the Temple, in the second year after their return; the trumpeters blew with silver trumpets, the Levites sang, and the people shouted; but what was joy to the young, whose hope was fulfilled, was grief to the old, who had seen Solomon's Temple in its glory. Where was the Ark? where the manna? where the Urim and Thummim? where the Light upon the Mercy-seat? Gone for ever, and heaps of ruins around! The old men wept as the youths cried out for joy, and the shout of rejoicing could barely be heard for the sound of wailing. But Haggai was sent to console them with the promise, that though this House was as nothing in their eyes, its glory should exceed that of the former one, for the Desire of all nations should come and fill this House with glory. Haggai had likewise to rebuke the people for their slackness in the work, and for building their own houses instead of the Temple, and soon they fell into trouble. The men of Samaria, children of those whom Esarhaddon had planted there, came, saying that they worshipped the God of the Jews, and wished to be one with them; but these half idolaters would soon have corrupted the Jews, so Zerubbabel and Joshua refused their offers. This made them bitter foes to the Jewish nation, and they wrote to the Persian court, saying that these newly returned exiles were no better than a set of rebels, who would destroy the king's power, if they were allowed to rebuild their city. Cyrus was dead, and his son, Cambyses, (called also Ahasuerus) who was a cruel selfish tyrant, at once forbade the work to go on, so that it was at a standstill for many years.
The wealth and luxury of Babylon were fast spoiling the Persians, who were losing their hardy ways, and with them their honour, mercy, and truth; and Cambyses was a very savage wretch, almost mad. He made war on Egypt, where he gained a battle by putting a number of cows, dogs, and cats, in front of his army, and as the Egyptians thought these creatures sacred, they dared not throw their darts at them, and so fled away. He won the whole country; and he afterwards marched into Ethiopia, where he nearly lost his whole army by thirst in a desert. The Egyptians hated him because he struck his sword into their sacred bull Apis, in his anger at their feasting in honour of this creature, when he himself had just met with such misfortunes. He had but one brother, named Smerdis, whom he caused to be secretly put to death; and when his sister wept for him, he kicked her so that she died. No one grieved when he was killed by a chance wound from his own sword, in the year 522; but a young Magian priest, pretending to be Smerdis, whose death was not generally known, became king. However, some of the nobles suspected the deceit; and one of them, whose daughter was among the many wives of the king, sent word to her to find out whether the king were the real Smerdis. She could not tell, having never seen the Prince Smerdis; but her father, who knew that the young Magian had had his ears cut off for some offence, told her to examine. She Answered that the king was earless; and the fraud being thus detected, seven of the great lords combined and slew him. One daughter of Cyrus still remained and the seven agreed that one of them should marry her and reign. The rest should have the right of visiting him whenever they pleased, and wearing the same sort of tiara, or high cap, with the point upright, instead of having it turned back like the rest of the Persians. The choice was to be settled by Heaven, as they thought; namely, by seeing whose horse would first neigh at the rise of their god, the sun. Darius Hystaspes, who thus became king in 521, was a good and upright man, in whose reign the Jews ventured to go on with the Temple. When the Samaritans came and stopped them, they wrote to beg that search might be made among the records of the kingdom for Cyrus's decree in their favour, which no one could change, because the laws of the Medes and Persians could not be altered. The decree was found, and Darius gave the Jews farther help, and forbade anyone to molest them; but they were very poor, and the restoration went on but feebly.
In Darius's reign Babylon revolted, and he laid siege to it. So determined were the inhabitants to hold out, that they killed their wives and children in order that the provisions might last longer, and thus they fulfilled what Isaiah had foretold -- that in one day the loss of children and widowhood would come on them. The place was at last betrayed by a friend of Darius, who cut off his own nose and ears, and showed himself bleeding, at the gates, pretending the king had done him this cruel injury. The Babylonians received and trusted him, and he soon opened the gates to his master, who terribly punished the rebels, destroyed as much as he could of the Temple of Bel, and left the city to go to decay, so that she never again was the Lady of Kingdoms. Darius was a great King, and records of his history are still to be read, cut out in the face of the rocks; but he tried two conquests that were far beyond his strength. He led an army into the bare and dreary country of the Scythians, the wild sons of Japhet, near the mouth of the Danube, and there would have been almost starved to death, but that a faithful camel loaded with provisions kept close to him. He also sent a large fleet and army to subdue the brave and wise Greeks, who lived in the isles and peninsulas opposite to Asia Minor, thinking he should easily bring them under his dominion, but they met his troops at Marathon, and gained a great victory, driving the Persians home with great loss.
Darius died in 485, and his son, Xerxes, who Daniel had said should stir up all the east against Grecia, led a huge army to conquer that brave little country. All the nations of the east were there, and Xerxes made a bridge of boats chained together over the Hellespont, for them to cross over. So proud and hasty was he, that when a storm destroyed his works, he caused the waves to be scourged, and fetters to be thrown into the sea, to punish it for having dared to resist him. He sat on his throne to see the army pass over the bridge, and as he saw the multitudes, he wept to think how soon they must all be dead, but he did not cease from sending them to their death. Though they were so many, the Greeks were much braver, and though they overran all the north part of the country, after they had killed the few brave defenders of the little pass of Thermopylae, they could not keep what they had taken; they were beaten both by land and sea, and a very small remnant came home to Persia in a wretched state. Xerxes was a weak vain boaster, and was very angry; he wanted to make another attempt, but never did so; he stayed at home feasting with his wives and living in luxury, till he was murdered, in the year 464.