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Old Testament Overview 5 - Return from Exile

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Also available:

1: Creation and Patriarchs 2: Exodus and Wilderness
3: Conquest and Monarchy 4: Divided Kingdom and Exile
5: Return from Exile 6: 400 Silent Years

The Return from Exile (Ezra, Nehemiah) (Sixth and fifth centuries BC 539 - 440 BC)

The Persians

Further to the East, the new empire of Persia was growing under the leadership of Cyrus. Their main cities were Susa, Persepolis and Ecbatana. The early Persian rulers were fairly civilised and benevolent, in contrast to the barbaric behaviour of the Assyrians and the Babylonians.

The Persians conquered a huge empire, much larger than Assyria or Babylon, stretching from Persia west and south to Ethiopia (modern Sudan). They organised it into many provinces, each under a provincial governor. One province was called 'Beyond the River' which included Judah and Jerusalem, the river being the Euphrates.

The Book of Esther

Set during the period of the Persian empire is the story of Esther, who was chosen as the queen of Persia (or at least one of the many queens!). Unknown to the king of Persia, Esther was Jewish, and encouraged by her uncle Mordecai, she was able to make a successful appeal for her people before the king when they were threatened with extermination by the evil prime minister, Haman. Although God is not explicitly mentioned in the book, he was certainly active behind the scenes, protecting his people. This great deliverance of the Jews was, and still is, celebrated each year in the Feast of Purim.

The Capture of Babylon (Dan 5) - KEY DATE: 539 BC

The city of Babylon had a series of huge walls around the city. These were up to 100 feet high, and were so wide that they could hold chariot races along the top, up to eight chariots wide. This led the people to become complacent, believing that no one could ever capture the city.

With the help of the Medes, Babylon fell to the Persians on the night of Belshazzar's feast (Dan 5). At the moment when the king began to use the sacred cups from the temple in Jerusalem for drinking wine, at a banquet which would probably degenerate into an orgy, a hand appeared and wrote on the wall. Daniel was called in, who interpreted the words, saying that the days of Belshazzar's kingdom have been brought to an end. They certainly had, because at that moment the Persian army was outside the city.

Babylon was built across the River Euphrates, so that the river flowed through the city. There were huge gates across the river to prevent anyone entering the city by boat. The Persians dug a canal and diverted the river round the city, so their army could enter the city along the dry river bed, as predicted by Isaiah (Is 44:27). This is also described in the history books (Herodotus - Book 1, ch 191)

Cyrus the Persian

The Assyrians scattered them, the Babylonians relocated them, but the Persians had a policy of repatriation, allowing the captured peoples to return home, and even helping them financially. In the British museum is the 'Cyrus Cylinder', which is a contemporary description of the edict made by Cyrus, allowing the Jews and other nationalities to return home (similar to that recorded in Ezra 1:2-4). Many years before, Isaiah had predicted Cyrus by name as the one anointed by God, even though he did not know God, who would allow the return of God's people and the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Is 44:28, 45:1).

The first return - led by Zerubbabel (Ezra 1-5)

The first Jews to return were led by Zerubbabel, the grandson of Jehoiachin, the last true Davidic king of Judah. Out of all the Jews in Babylon, only a few returned. These were the faithful remnant who wanted above all to be able to worship God in Jerusalem. Their motivation to return was purely religious, as Jerusalem was a heap of ruins and not the place to go for a comfortable, secure, and prosperous life. In fact, Isaiah had predicted this limited return, and named one of his sons Shear-jashub, meaning, "A remnant shall return" (Is 7:3).

With great rejoicing, the first group arrived in Jerusalem, and began to rebuild the temple. They completed the altar of burnt offering before opposition stopped the work, and the temple remained incomplete. God raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, who exhorted the people to complete the temple.

The Prophet Haggai

The small Book of Haggai contains four prophecies, all given in 520 BC. His main message was to challenge the people with their priorities, suggesting that the reason why life was difficult was because they had left the temple lying in ruins while they got on with their own lives. The people responded very quickly to his word, and completed rebuilding the temple. He then predicted the time when the latter splendour of the temple will be greater than the former, and gave a special blessing on Zerubbabel.

The Prophet Zechariah

The first part of the prophecy of Zechariah was also given around 520 BC, consisting of a series of visions about the rebuilding of the temple. The second part consists of two oracles which were probably given much later in Zechariah's life. These are very difficult to understand, but speak of the glorious future for Israel and the coming of their king on a donkey, the one who will be pierced.

Ezra and the 2nd return (Ezra 7-10, Neh 7-9) - KEY DATE: 458 BC

In the mid fifth century, another large group of exiles returned, led by Ezra. If Zerubbabel rebuilt the temple, and Nehemiah rebuilt the walls, then in many ways Ezra rebuilt the nation of the Jews. Following a public reading of the law, he led the people in a renewal of the covenant, and dealt severely with mixed marriages.

1 & 2 Chronicles

Ezra is a very significant figure in Jewish history. It is likely that he compiled the books of 1 & 2 Chronicles (which were originally whiten as a single scroll). In these, he looked back over the history of Israel from the perspective of after the return from exile. Starting with pages of genealogies, he showed the roots of the nation, and how God had established the line of kings from David. Chronicles focuses exclusively on the southern kingdom of Judah, and tends to gloss over the failings of the kings. It omits mention of the rebellious northern kingdom of Israel, because they were not faithful to God. The books have a major focus on the temple and the worship that took place in it.

Ezra was a scribe, a priest who was skilled in the law of Moses, and it was under his leadership that the Old Testament books were collected together, and some minor alterations probably made. Since his time, no books have been added to it.

Nehemiah - KEY DATE: 444 BC

Last in the history of the Old Testament is Nehemiah. He was the cupbearer to the king of Persia, and was saddened when he heard about the ruined state of the walls of Jerusalem. With permission of the king, he returned to Jerusalem, with a third group of exiles, and against much opposition from the people in the land, was able to organise the Jews to rebuild the walls of the city. He was appointed governor of the province 'Beyond the River' by the Persians. Led by Ezra, there was a public reading of the law, repentance, and a renewal of the covenant.

So, there were three main groups who returned from exile to Jerusalem:

Date Led by What happened
539 BC Zerubbabel Rebuilt temple
457 BC Ezra Rebuilt nation
444 BC Nehemiah Rebuilt walls

Developing streams and expectations

Following the return from the exile, we can see the beginnings of some important streams of thought, which developed through the period following the end of the Old Testament leading up to the time when Jesus came.

1. Legalism
To be allowed to return from the exile should be seen as God very graciously giving the people a 'second chance' to get it right this time, and not to fall into idolatry again. Reading the books of Ezra and Nehemiah we can get the impression that they were anxious to do everything just right, almost over anxious, so they didn't lose it all once more. This anxiety to do the right thing before God can perhaps be seen as the seeds of the legalism which grew with the Pharisees, and was such a problem during Jesus' ministry.

2. A sense of disillusionment
From their understanding of the prophets, the people returning from exile had high hopes of a glorious future of Israel. God had judged his people for their idolatry, and now they had come to the hope beyond the judgement. They expected everything to be wonderful, with no more problems, and Israel to be established as a great nation. However, they returned to a city which was a heap of ruins, there was opposition from the people in the land, and life was hard. Where had all the hopes gone to? This led to an increasing sense of disillusionment, and questioning whether God really loved them.

The Prophet Malachi

Into this disillusionment spoke the last prophet, Malachi. By asking a series of questions, he challenged the commitment of the people to God, and warned of his judgement. After him, there were no further Words of the Lord until the messenger he predicted came to prepare the way, and to turn the hearts of parents to their children - in the person of John the Baptist, 400 years later.

3. Expectation of the Messiah
Out of the disillusionment, there arose the expectation that God still had more that he wanted to do. The people began to believe that the glorious future of Israel was still in the future, associated with the time that the Messiah would come. So over the next centuries, there was an ever increasing expectation that the Messiah would imminently come, so that in the first century BC, and first century AD, there were a multitude of false Messiahs, who made outrageous claims and gathered followers. Unfortunately the people began to expect the wrong sort of Messiah, someone who would lead the army as a great military hero and establish his throne in Jerusalem as the Son of David, and make Israel a great political power. Jesus had to re-educate his disciples about the true nature of the Messiah, as the one who came to serve, and to give his life for many (Mk 10:45).

Also available:

1: Creation and Patriarchs 2: Exodus and Wilderness
3: Conquest and Monarchy 4: Divided Kingdom and Exile
5: Return from Exile 6: 400 Silent Years