The letter plays an important role in both the Old and New Testaments.
At the end of 2 Chronicles, Israel is sent to exile to fulfill the covenant curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Israel was warned that her unfaithfulness would cause her to go into exile, but she was hard of heart, and refused to listen. Specifically, the Chronicler says that Israel’s sin was her failure to give the land its Sabbath rests. The Sabbath was designed a rest for both man and the land, that Israel would be freed from debts to worship Yahweh without anxiety. The land needed the rest, too, but Israel overworked it. God, being just, was faithful to his promises, even the curses, and sent her away.
With the exiled people, the king of the Chaldeans brought the temple vessels to Babylon. The vessels of the house of God, the treasures of the temple and king were brought away and the temple was destroyed. Whereas God was personally offended by a king, yet relented (1 Chronicles 21:15), the Chaldeans were offended by Judah yet had no compassion (2 Chronicles 36:17-18). There seemed to be no hope for God’s people.
This helplessness was alleviated when, seventy years later, Cyrus sent an epistle to God’s people. Cyrus was foretold in prophecy, and was called both God’s shepherd (a Davidic term) and God’s messiah (another Davidic term, carrying priestly connotations.) God grasped the hand of Cyrus specifically to bring kings down and open previously closed gates (Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1).
After reading the letter, Israel was allowed to return to Jerusalem to begin rebuilding the temple. Cyrus gave Israel four pieces of good news: that God had given Cyrus universal reign; that God was still with his people; that they were to rebuild the temple; and that they were to be given silver and gold to do so. It seemed that under the reign of Cyrus, Israel was to flourish. Though God had departed the temple before (Ezekiel 10-11), he was still with his people and desired for them to build him a home among them. He would even give them the wealth of the nations to accomplish the construction project.
Imagine, then, the 1st century Roman context for the Christians. The Jews live scattered among the nations, and Gentile Christians wonder about their place in the community of the Messiah. Isaiah’s second exodus had not seemed to come to pass yet. Imagine the hope, then, of receiving another epistle from an ambassador of God. How might we read epistles differently if we read them in light of the return from exile?