The Exiles Return
It must have felt like a dream. After so many years in a foreign land, the Jewish people could go home. Their release from captivity in Babylon, now part of the Medo-Persian Empire, should not have come as too much of a surprise; after all, it had been predicted in a song (Ps. 126:1–6).
The return of the exiles to Judah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem were carried out in three waves. The first return was around 538 B.C. under the leadership of a man named Zerubbabel. It was during this period that the people of Israel built the second Temple.
About eighty years later, a second group, under the priestly leadership of Ezra, returned to the land. Spiritual and religious reformation occurred at that time.
Finally, under the leadership of Nehemiah, a king’s cupbearer, many more returned. Nehemiah’s focus was to repair Jerusalem’s walls and gates.
The First Return: Fearless Faith
God stirred Cyrus, king of Persia, to proclaim in writing that all captives of Israel could return home (Ezra 1:1–2). The prophet Daniel may have shown him Jeremiah’s prophecy about Babylon’s fall and Israel’s seventy-year captivity (Jer. 25:12–13). He also could have shown the king’s name in the book of Isaiah as the one prophesied to allow Jerusalem and the Temple to be rebuilt (Isa. 44:28).
Zerubbabel was to lead the first aliyah. The Hebrew word aliyah means “ascension” or “going up.” Today it commonly refers to the act of Jewish people returning to live in Israel from other parts of the world. The call of Cyrus, king of Persia, has been used as an adage for aliyah: “Who is there among you of all His people? The LORD, his God, be with him, and let him go up” (2 Chr. 36:23; cf. Ezra 1:3).
Zerubbabel was a descendant of King David and an ancestor of Jesus Christ (Mt. 1:6, 12). His name probably means “seed of Babylon”; but his Persian name was Sheshbazzar, suggesting he may have been in the service of the king (Ezra 1:8—5:14). Yet Zerubbabel left all the comforts of Babylon behind to take on this challenge.
Scripture states that 42,360 people returned to Judah, accompanied by 7,337 slaves and two hundred singers (Ezra 2:64–65), including members of the ten northern tribes taken into captivity by Assyria in 722 B.C. (Ezra 2:70). Still, they were only a small remnant.
Why wouldn’t the opportunity to return to the Promised Land cause a massive exodus from Babylon? Because the Jewish people were not slaves in Babylon but were full and active members of Babylonian society. Many prospered. It is easy to imagine that many second and third generation Jewish Babylonians had no interest in leaving.
With the exception of the few, most of the Israelites born in captivity probably had lost the love for the homeland. Perhaps their desire to fit in caused many to discard God’s Word.
Nevertheless, there were men and women like Zerubbabel who turned their backs on the comforts of a pagan world and turned their faces toward the God of Israel and the land He had promised would be theirs forever.
An analogous situation exists today among Christians. Many secondand third-generation believers live comfortably in their spiritual complacency. They are still “captives” to a God-hostile world. A sure way to break free is to focus all our devotion on Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2).
At Jerusalem the first order of business was to rebuild the altar of the Lord and reestablish sacrifices. Also, the Temple was to be rebuilt with donations of material and money (Ezra 3:1–7). The primary lesson for the new arrivals was to put the Lord first in all things (cf. Prov. 3:6).
Then opposition from outside, together with the selfish interests of some from within the remnant, caused the work on the Temple to stop for about sixteen years. Rebuked and encouraged by the preaching of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the Jewish people resumed the Temple project (Ezra 5—6).
Christ’s enemies always seek to thwart God’s work. Nevertheless, God’s promise is clear: “There is no wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel against the LORD” (Prov. 21:30).
Most of the returnees rejoiced to see the finished Temple. But some of the older folks wept when they compared the humble structure with the magnificence of the first Temple. To them it was simply too inferior (Hag. 2:3; Zech. 4:10).
Even today people are quick to judge the quality of a work of God by its size and grandeur. Yet Scripture admonishes us not to despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10). Whether large or small, God’s work is accomplished “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 4:6).
The Second Return: Spiritual Shake-Up
A priest had a burden. He wanted to teach God’s laws and regulations to the people already in Jerusalem (Ezra 7:10). With letters from a new Persian king, Artaxerxes, Ezra the priest and scribe led a second expedition back to the Promised Land.
Ezra was a man with credentials. Scripture calls him “a ready scribe in the law of Moses” (7:6); “the priest, the scribe, even a scribe of the words of the commandments of the LORD, and of his statutes to Israel” (v. 11); and “a scribe of the law of the God of heaven” (v. 12). He had a profound love for God’s Word, deplored sin, and trusted God every step of his life. He exemplified the principle of Ecclesiastes 12:13: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.”
The king’s commission invited all the Jewish people who so wished to accompany Ezra. The male registry showed that about 1,754 or fewer responded. As Ezra examined the list, he noticed that members of a special group were missing. There were no Levites.
Although the Levites were men with many privileges associated with Temple service, not one chose to go. Ezra probably exerted his priestly muscle and sent a delegation to find volunteers (Ezra 8:15–20).
It is a sad situation when people fail to use their God-given abilities for His glory. As believers, we should be active and willing to do God’s will, “for unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required” (Lk. 12:48).
Unfortunately, there was trouble in Jerusalem. Many had violated the law concerning mixed marriages (Dt. 7:3–4). Priests, Levites, princes, and rulers were some of the worst offenders. This sin was serious because it encouraged idolatry. It also broke down the separation that God had designed for Israel as a unique people (Ezra 9:1–2).
Full of grief, Ezra threw himself on the ground in front of the Temple entrance. Many joined him in his cry to God for mercy and forgiveness. Finally, under a heavy rain, hearts came under conviction. Confession was made, and action was taken to put away sin. With the exception of a few, the offenders separated themselves from the heathen people of the land and their own pagan wives (Ezra 10).
Many of the marital problems believers have today could be avoided if we obeyed God’s command: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers; for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14).
The Third Return: Singleness of Purpose
A cupbearer in the Persian summer court at Shushan was sad. Nehemiah had received bad news. Jerusalem’s walls and gates were still in ruins. Strengthened by prayer, he spoke to the king and, in 445 B.C., was granted permission to go to Judah (Neh. 2:5–8). It was Nehemiah, during this Persian period of Israel’s history, who opened the door for more Jews exiled in heathen countries to return to the Promised Land (cf. Neh. 5:17).
The name Nehemiah means “Yahveh consoles.” Comfort in the name of the Lord was exactly what Nehemiah determined to offer his fellow countrymen. He was willing to leave a position of wealth, power, and influence to share in the hardships of his people.
Scripture reveals that Nehemiah knew his God: “I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and awe-inspiring God, who keepeth covenant and mercy for them who love him and observe his commandments” (Neh. 1:5).
While at Jerusalem, he was challenged by enemies from without as well as from within (Neh. 4—5). Again, as in the days of Zerubbabel, God’s enemies were active. Nevertheless, the work continued under Nehemiah’s tenacious leadership. In only fifty-two days, the walls were restored (Neh. 6:15).
With the help of Ezra and, later, the prophet Malachi, Nehemiah encouraged spiritual reforms. He enforced the separation law concerning mixed marriages, as well as the Sabbath observance. He kept the sanctuary free from infidels and arranged support for the Temple services (Neh. 13). He stood fast in the Lord and would not be distracted from his goal (cf. 1 Th. 3:8). Nehemiah had singleness of purpose. He sought divine blessings and gave thanks to God for all his successes.
The significance of these three returns can be appreciated in the light of three unique men: Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. It is not the position or office but the condition of the heart that God seeks and uses for His purposes. Israel’s returns reveal how easily God can conform the hearts of kings and rulers to His will (Prov. 21:1). God’s enemies could not stop His work (Prov. 21:30). In spite of the opposition, the Temple and walls of Jerusalem were restored.
Supported by the ministries of three great prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the leaders of the returns set a practical pattern for courage, conviction, and commitment: “For whatever things were written in earlier times were written for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of the scriptures, might have hope” (Rom.15:4).