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SIMPLIFIED JOURNEY (13): Exile & Return

One of the defining events of Jewish history was the exile to Babylon – from which some of the Jews eventually returned to their home country.

He [Nebuchadnezzar] carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his sons until the kingdom of Persia came to power. The land [of Judah] enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah.

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation through his realm…. – 2 Chronicles 36:20-22

The proclamation of Cyrus was that all of the Jews who desired, would be able to return to their homeland with Cyrus’ blessing.

The Chronicler passes over the 70 year exile with a single verse, which simply states that the land enjoyed its Sabbath rests. Nothing in the historic narrative tells of how the Jews fared while in exile, except that they were servants to the king of Babylon and his sons.

Ezra and Nehemiah took up the story with the return and events that followed the return. Esther tells of events in Persia after the return, for there were still many Jews (the majority) in the land of their Captivity. To learn of how the Jews fared in Captivity, we can look at Psalm 137:

  1. By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion
  2. There on the poplars we hung our harps,
  3. for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the song of Zion!”
  4. How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
  5. If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
  6. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
  7. Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
  8. O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us –
  9. he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

We can also look at the books of Ezekiel and Daniel, plus some of the Apocryphal books to learn how they fared.

In Captivity

Actually, the Jews fared quite well in exile. Many of them had responsible positions in the governments of Babylon and later the Medo-Persian empire. They fared so well that when it came time to return to Jerusalem, it was only a minority who went back. Just as today, there are more Jews outside of Israel than who live there – so also in the time of the return. This was the beginning of the Jewish Dispersion throughout the world, which continues to this day. This Dispersion of the Jews throughout the ancient world assisted in the early spread of the gospel.

God sent  two great prophets to Babylon – Ezekiel and Daniel. Each of them were prophets of hope and redemption.

Ezekiel was among the people in the early days while there were still people in Jerusalem with a son of David on the throne. He addressed some of his prophecy to Jerusalem, and some to the captives. He told of a glorious time of restoration of Israel as he offered hope to the people.

Daniel, on the other hand, was in the king’s palace prophesying to the pagan kings, Nebuchadnezzar and his successors, of the greatness of the God of Israel. He also spoke of the coming kingdom of God who was King of kings and LORD of Lords.

Return from Exile

Isaiah prophesied, “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 45:13). Some believe the LORD “moved the heart of Cyrus, king of Persia” to allow the Jews to return to their homeland by having Daniel show him this passage in Isaiah, written more than 100 years earlier.

Zerubbabel, the Governor, and Jeshua, the priest, led the earliest group to return. The returnees quickly built an altar and laid the foundation for the Temple, but did not complete it for quite some time. This was due to opposition to this by enemies of the Jews living near them, who wrote to King Artaxerxes (Cyrus’ successor) accusing the Jews of trying to rebuild a rebellious city. Construction on the Temple did not resume until the prophet Haggai did his work c. 520 BC.

Ezra Reads the Law to the People

Ezra led another wave of returnees to Canaan, probably near 460 BC. He was a priest and a scribe who “devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).  King Artaxerxes I gave him permission to return to Jerusalem with the Temple instruments and a commission to teach the law to its inhabitants.

About 444 BC, Nehemiah received permission and assistance in going back to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the city, a task he completed in 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15). He served as governor in Jerusalem for several years as well.

Esther, the Jewish orphan girl who became the Queen, was among those who did not return to Judea. Yet, her role in the history of Israel was important, as she helped to preserve the nation against the plots of the evil Haman one of the counselors of King Xerxes. This brief book is unique in that it does not contain the name of God or any direct reference to Him. J.W. McGarvey preached a sermon from Esther, which he called God in the Shadows. In it he spoke of how the providence of God is apparent throughout the book, even though He is not named.

The Prophets of the Return

There were three prophets in post-exile Judea: Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

Haggai is remembered for inspiring the completion of the temple when the early returnees had stopped building it.

Zechariah was, apparently, a contemporary of Haggai. His prophecy is apocalyptic in style. In some ways, it resembles the Apocalypse of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation.

Malachi, which came much later than the other two, was the final book of the Old Testament. It closes with a prophecy of a return of the prophet Elijah, a prophecy fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist.


The exile provided a much needed purge for Judah. The tendency to follow the gods of the pagans around them was cured. They never again went whoring after other gods, even when persecuted for holding to the monotheism for which the Jews are noted. The stories of heroism and persecution come mostly from the exile and afterward. The Apocrypha has many such stories, some of which are referenced in the “Hall of the Faithful” in Hebrews 11.

There was a fundamental change in Judaism after the return. The focus was more on the Law than on the physical glory of the Temple. The rebuilt Temple was not a glorious building. The Temple in Jesus’ day was a new Temple begun by Herod the Great, and still under construction when Jesus was born. The synagogue became an important center of Jewish worship and life. There is where the people learned the law. There was nothing comparable to the synagogue in the life of Israel prior to the Exile.

There was only a remnant of Israel that returned. The vast majority continued to live outside of the Promised Land. By living among the nations, by the time of Jesus and His apostles, Israel had begun to be a blessing to all the world. Their example of faithfulness in persecution and devotion to their one God was attracting favorable attention from many who became God-fearing Gentiles. Some of these became proselytes to Judaism. These God-fearing people became a bridge to the Gentile world for the gospel when Jesus sent His disciples into all of the world.

NEXT (14): Patient Endurance – Job

PREVIOUS (12): Judah Alone & Without God


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