From the TBC archives:
Question: I know God's Word is infallible and inerrant, but I can't reconcile Jeremiah's statement that Jerusalem would be desolate for 70 years either with history or the Bible. When did this 70year period begin and end? Nor can I get it straight concerning Darius, Cyrus, the rebuilding of the temple in Ezra's time and the rebuilding of Jerusalem under Nehemiah.
Response: The entire subject of the 70-year desolation of Jerusalem seems to contain several apparently hopeless contradictions. I have learned that God allows seeming contradictions to force us to dig deeper and in the end to have our faith strengthened thereby.
First of all we encounter the apparent contradiction about the duration of Daniel's time in Babylon. Daniel:1:21 says, "Daniel continued even unto the first year of king Cyrus...." But 10:1 says, "In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia a thing was revealed unto Daniel...." If Daniel continued only unto the first year of Cyrus, how could he still be alive and receiving revelations in Cyrus's third year?
Obviously 1:21 can't mean that Daniel died in the first year of Cyrus. The statement is made because it was in his first year that Cyrus allowed the Jews to return. Thus we are told that Daniel lived to see the return of the captives under Cyrus. That the first wave of captives returned in the first year of Cyrus is stated clearly in 2 Chronicles:36:22-23 and Ezra:1:14, 5:13 and 6:3.
This brings us to what appears to be a hopeless contradiction due to the fact that Cyrus II, known as Cyrus the Great, ruled from about 550-529 B.C. The first year of his reign, in 550 B.C., would be much too early for a return of the captives to Jerusalem if that indeed marked the end of the 70-year desolation thereof. Even if we count from the first carrying away of captives into Babylon in 605 B.C., that gives only 55 years instead of the 70-year desolation of Jerusalem prophesied by Jeremiah (Jer:25:3-11; Dn 9:2). We could legitimately extend the period to the first year of his reign in Babylon, which he captured in 539 B.C. This is undoubtedly when the decree was given and what is meant by the first year of his reign (he had no jurisdiction over the Jewish captives until then) but that would still leave us 4 years short of the necessary 70-year desolation.
However, it seems clear that the first wave of returnees to Jerusalem by Cyrus's decree, resulting in the commencement of temple reconstruction, did not end the 70-year desolation. Eight years after the death of Cyrus, Daniel is still praying for the restoration of Jerusalem (Dn 9:1-19) in the first year of Darius. Cyrus died in 529 B.C. and was succeeded by his son Cambyses, who in turn was succeeded by Darius in 521 B.C. (after an eight-month interlude of a usurper in 522 B.C.). So at least 18 years after the first wave of captives returned to Jerusalem and began to rebuild the temple, Daniel is still fervently praying for an end to the desolation of Jerusalem (Dn 9).
Obviously, then, the 70-year desolation of Jerusalem is not considered by Scripture to have ended with the decree of Cyrus allowing the captives to return. The unfounded belief that the desolation ended at that time creates this confusion. While we are told at least four times that this decree was given in the first year of Cyrus (the first year of his reign in Babylon), nowhere is it stated that this decree marked the end of the prophesied desolation of Jerusalem.
That the desolation did not end at that time becomes clear from a careful reading of the book of Ezra. The foundation of the temple had no sooner been laid than opposition arose. The adversaries "weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building...frustrate[d] their purpose, all the days of Cyrus...until the reign of Darius..." (Ezr 4:15). Although Cyrus no doubt had good intentions, apparently after giving the decree he was too preoccupied to make certain that it was being effected in Jerusalem. The captives had been allowed to return, and the fact that they were frustrated in building the temple was overlooked if ever reported to him. Verse 6 tells of the opposition during the reign of Ahasuerus (known as Cambyses in secular history). Verses 7-23 refer in more detail to the decree by Artaxerxes, which caused the work of the temple to cease by force and power. This Artaxerxes was also known as Smerdis, a usurper, who seized the throne in 522 B.C. and was murdered eight months later and was succeeded by Darius. The suspension of temple reconstruction held unto the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia (Ezr 4:23-24). Now we see the answer to Daniel's prayer with the restoration of temple construction in 521 B.C.! The temple was then finished in the sixth year of the reign of Darius (Ezr 6:15), in 516 B.C.
Thus the 70-year desolations are actually counted from the destruction of the temple in 586 B.C. until its completion in 516 B.C., exactly 70 years. All of the apparent contradictions disappear and the biblical account perfectly fits a very complex scenario, further reason for absolute confidence in whatever else the Bible has to say.