Chapter 19, the return home
“The return of the exiles from Babylon — a frustrated homecoming” (The Story, chapter 19)
How do you feel when you return from a long holiday or business trip? You’ve lived out of your suitcase for weeks on end. You’ve climb in and out of trains, planes, and auto-mobiles. Slept in uncomfortable hotel beds. When you finally walk in your front door, you immediately feel at peace amongst the familiar sights and smells — you’re home again! A homecoming can be such a great feeling.
In our journey through ‘The Story’ we’ve reached the chapter on the return of the exiles from Babylon to their home in Jerusalem (chapter 19).
1. Ancient problem
The Book of Ezra opens by describing the homecoming of the Israelite exiles. ‘The LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia’ (Ezra 1:1 NIV) to change the foreign policy of the Persian government: captured peoples were allowed to return home, build altars and worship God. The prophecies against Babylon, spoken by Isaiah and Jeremiah, were fulfilled at last: the Babylonian empire had been overthrown by the Persians, and the new Persian rulers send the exiles home. The Israelites are finally allowed back home to the promised land!
They describe their homecoming as a “second Exodus.”
- Like their first exodus when they were ‘brought up out of Egypt’ (Ex 33:1 NIV), ‘the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem’ (Ezra 1:11 ESV).
- Like their escape from Egypt, the exiles carry home silver and gold (Ezra 1:6).
- And finally, when the exiles arrive in Jerusalem, they build an altar in the ruins of the temple, and celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles (Ezra 3:4) which commemorates God’s gracious deliverance from Egypt — the time they lived in tents after crossing the Red Sea.
Like the times of old, the exiles have had a second Exodus from the hands of captors — a glorious homecoming to the promised land. And like arriving home from a long journey, they no doubt expect familiar sights and smells.
But such a glorious and easy homecoming is not to be… From the outset they encounter frustrations and opposition.
- Firstly, after building the altar, they get started rebuilding the temple — but it’s expensive and hard yakka. Eventually the foundation of the temple of the LORD is laid, and they celebrate with a massive worship service: priests and Levites in their vestments, trumpet fanfare and cymbals clashing, shouts of praise and thanksgiving (Ezra 3:10–11). Yet, some despair, comparing the cheap reconstruction with Solomon’s glorious original.
Many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping. (Ezra 3:12–13).
- Next, they discover “their” promised land is far from being an empty ghost town. Some peoples remained, and others had moved in while they were away. It doesn’t take long for the ‘the enemies of Judah and Benjamin [to hear] that the exiles were building a temple for the LORD, [so] they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families, and said, “Let us help you build.”’ (Ezra 4:1–2 NIV). But the exiles respond: No, this is our job! So these enemies ‘set out to discourage the people’ (Ezra 4:4 NIV), and made ‘them afraid to go on building’ (Ezra 4:4 NIV). The enemies ‘bribed officials to work against them and frustrate[d] their plans’ (Ezra 4:5 NIV).
- Then, on top of all this, there’s a drought caused by their distraction. The exiles are too busy building their own houses to pay attention to the rebuilding of the LORD’s house. The prophet Haggai proclaims the LORD’s disfavour:
“You have planted much, but harvested little.” (Hag 1:6 NIV) Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house.” (Hag 1:9 NIV)
Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill. (Ezra 4:24 NIV)
The days turn to weeks as the temple rebuilding is neglected…
- Finally, the exiles struggle with the age-old problem of bureaucratic red-tape. (Yes, they had red-tape back then also!) The Persian governor, Tat-ten-ai, inspects their work, asking for their building permits: “Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and to finish it?” (Ezra 5:3 NIV). If you’ve read chapter 19 in ‘The Story’ Bible, you’ll have discovered the last half (Ezra chapters 5 and 6) provide a detailed collation of correspondence between the Israelites and the Persian government. Records are consulted, archives searched, lists compiled, letters sent to and fro. And after all the fuss, they are eventually re-issued with a building permit.
So much for an easy homecoming! There are complaints, enemies plotting against them, distraction and drought, and a battle with red-tape.
Shouldn’t God’s redeemed people have a grand and smooth homecoming? Where is God in all of this? Is God no longer in control? Are the people on their own?
2. Contemporary problem
I wonder if you can relate to these returning exiles?
You know, you too were once an exile. In your sin you were cut-off from God. Yet your Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, ‘gave his life to free [you] from every kind of sin, to cleanse [you], and to make [you] his very own people’ (Titus 2:14 NLT). ‘God chose you as firstfruits, to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, and through belief in the truth.’ (2 Thess 2:13 NIV). The good news is that, in baptism, you crossed the Jordan River and returned to where you belong. You have had a homecoming.
Now I wonder if your homecoming is also full of frustration and opposition, like the returning Israelite exiles?
Do you encounter internal bickering and complaints, comparisons to the “good old days of yesteryear”? Are your plans frustrated by others? Or perhaps you often find yourself busy with your own house, neglecting the house of the Lord? Or maybe bureaucratic red-tape frustrates you? “Not another ChildSafe refresher course?!” Do you have rosters and letters and emails and lists coming out of your ears?
Do you sometimes wonder where God is? Is He really in control?
3. Ancient/Contemporary solution
Well, the good news is that the returning exiles have been through their frustrated homecoming, and God wants to teach us, and speak to us, through their story.
- The first aspect to note is that the exiles were reminded that God watches over them — He is active and present in history and political events. We hear that:
The LORD moved the heart of Cyrus, king of Persia (Ezra 1:1 NIV).
The eye of God was watching over the elders of the Jews (Ezra 5:5 NIV).
The LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people (Hag 1:14 NIV).
The LORD is watching and His spirit is active, bringing about the necessary events for the unfolding of His story.
Likewise, God watches over you. He is present and active in our history and political events today, even though it’s not always obvious. Psalm 145 declares: ‘The LORD watches over all who love him’ (Ps 145:20 NIV).
How does it feel to know that God is watching over your frustrations and difficulties?
- Secondly, as we follow the exiles through their frustrated homecoming, we hear time-and-time again the consistent message the LORD spoke:
“Now be strong, Zerubbabel,” declares the LORD. “Be strong, Joshua, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,” declares the LORD, “and work. For I am with you” (Hag 2:4 NIV).
This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’” (Zech 8:9 NIV).
Remember the first act of the returning exiles was to rebuild the altar, before they continued with the rest of the temple. So coinciding with this time of strengthening, they have reinstated the sacrificial system (Ezra 3:1–6). (i) These sacrifices were offered as a gift to God; (ii) and they established communion with God through a meal — the fat and blood were given to God as a gift, but the other parts were eaten in a meal of fellowship (see Lev 3:3–5; 7:22–25; Deut 12:5–12).
Our epistle reading today ended with a similar encouragement from Paul to “be strong.” He writes: ‘stand firm and hold fast to the teachings [and traditions] we passed on to you’ (2 Thess 2:15 NIV).
What teachings and traditions have been passed on to us?
My mind immediately thinks of our Sunday morning worship. Across Australia and the world, Christians practice the one tradition: our sins are declared forgiven; we sing praise to God; we hear the Word of God; we confess our faith; we pray; and we commune with God in a meal as we receive the body and blood of Christ, who is the ultimate gift and sacrifice.
I encourage you during the coming week to think about the teachings and traditions passed on to us. What Christian teachings and traditions strengthen and sustain you in the face of frustration and opposition?
- Lastly, through the prophets at that time, God promises He will dwell with His people:
‘This is what the LORD says: “I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem”’ (Zech 8:3 NIV).
This promise was partially fulfilled with the completion of the second temple. Chapter 19 of ‘The Story’ closes with the following:
The temple was completed … Then the people of Israel — the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles — celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. (Ezra 6:15–16 NIV)
But we know God’s promise is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Through the Word made flesh, the person of Jesus, God dwells among us (John 1:14). There is no longer need for a building because God dwells in you, in the temple of your body (1 Cor 3:16; 1 Cor 6:19–20; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19–22). Paul says:
You are … members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph 2:19–22 NIV)
How will the frustrations and opposition you face this week be different knowing that God dwells in you by his Spirit?
So, may the LORD Almighty make you strong in the face of frustration and opposition. Know that He continually watches over you. He speaks to you and dwells in you. With your fellow returned exiles, may you always celebrate in the house of God with great joy because of the gift and sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ Amen.
Timeless Truth: God’s grace provides a fresh start.
Chapter Summary (Have someone in your group read the summary section.)
After generations of idolatry, God’s people had been defeated by the empires that controlled the ancient world. The Assyrians had conquered the Northern kingdom, deported the people, and re-populated the land with exiles from other countries. Their practice was to redistribute people from conquered nations throughout their vast empire. The foreigners who were resettled in northern Israel intermarried with the few remaining Jews and became the half-breed Samaritans.
The Babylonians were next on the world scene. After each of their three conquests of the Southern Kingdom, the Babylonians deported Jewish captives to enclaves in Babylon and sought to assimilate them into their culture. Now, 70 years of captivity had elapsed. Kings and kingdoms rise and fall; world empires come and go.
The next world power, Persia, was more benevolent. They preferred the benefits of high taxation and the favor of the various gods. So King Cyrus issued a decree to repatriate all aliens to their homelands while allowing them some degree of self-rule. And thus the people of Israel began their journey home.
Under the guidance of the Hebrew leader, Zerubbabel, nearly 50,000 Jews returned to Jerusalem. They were intent on rebuilding, and the temple was the first priority. They rebuilt the altar and prepared sacrifices in accordance with the Law of Moses. Fifty years had passed since the temple had been torn down by the Babylonians, and at last God’s people were again able to worship as God had instructed. The foundation of this humble temple could not compare to the magnificence of its predecessor, but the process had begun, and God was leading the way.
The locals didn’t necessarily roll out the welcome wagon for the repatriated Judeans. They made a backhanded offer of help as an attempt to sabotage the temple rebuilding project. Zerubbabel didn’t fall for their scheme, but the Jews were intimidated and construction halted.
Sixteen years later the prophet, Haggai, spoke on God’s behalf. He twice urged his people, “Give careful thought to your ways.” He reminded them that the temple had to be built as a place of honor and glory for God. The LORD encouraged His people and they returned to their work. Though the new temple would not have the splendor of the old one, God promised that His unsurpassed glory would return. Zechariah agreed; Jerusalem would again teem with life and prosperity because the people would live righteously. God promised to shower Jerusalem and Judah with His goodness and make Israel a blessing to the world.
When the building resumed, a new antagonist, Tattenai, wrote to King Darius hoping to obstruct progress. Darius searched the royal archives and discovered that his predecessor, King Cyrus, had given his royal thumbs up to the rebuilding of God’s temple. In a fitting twist of events, Darius penned a letter back to Tattenai charging him with responsibility for funding the temple reconstruction. The plot backfired, and in 516 B.C., the temple was completed.
It had been 70 years since the people were first taken captive. This long and painful season of discipline brought much needed change to the hearts of God’s people. In the Lower Story, God brought them out of captivity again. He returned them to the Land of Promise where they rebuilt His temple and their lives.
But the Upper Story once again rings with echoes of delivery from bondage. The LORD had redeemed His people from foreign captivity as God’s great, over-arching plan continued unabated. This story of liberation and restoration is a poignant reminder that this world is not our home. Like Israel, we wait in joyful anticipation of our journey to a land of eternal promise (Heb. 11:16) where all things are new and home will be forever.
Icebreaker Question: What’s the farthest you have moved? How was the adjustment?
- How did the LORD fulfill His word spoken by Jeremiah? Look up Jer. 25:12 and 29:10. What happened to the king of Babylon? (See p. 256-257 for further insight.)
- Look up Isa. 44:28 – 45:1. About how many years had passed between Isaiah’s prophecy and Cyrus’ edict? What does this teach you about God?
- Why do you think many of the exiles chose to stay in Babylon instead of returning home to the Promised Land? How do you suppose God viewed that choice?
- How did the temple builders and worshipers regard their covenant, the Law of Moses (p. 264-265)? Compare their view of the Law to the Israelites’ attitude before the exile.
- When the temple was re-established, some were overjoyed, and some were heart-broken. Many churches go through periods of growth, reconstruction and challenge. How should we respond when mixed feelings pull us in opposite directions?
- What difficulties did the Jews experience in their rebuilding efforts? How did they respond to adversity? How can you use this story when facing adversity?
- Zechariah’s message claimed that people from other nations would be attracted to the religion and the God of the Jews (p. 269-270). What was to be the basis for this attraction? In what ways should our church be attractive to outsiders?
- Once they resumed work on the temple, opposition resumed from Tattenai and others (p. 270). What examples of irony can you find in the correspondence between Tattenai and King Darius? What support do you find that “the eye of their God was watching over” them?
- With Zechariah’s encouragement, the people completed the task God gave them. Who in your group needs encouragement? Make a list of specific needs to pray for, and check on them next week.
In the time remaining ask your group members to share any of their personal reflection insights from their journal entries.
Chapter 20, the queen of beauty and courage
Journal your answers to these questions as you read through the chapter this week. You may wish to read one day and journal the next, or spread the questions over the whole week.
- Compare and contrast either Queens Vashti and Esther or Mordecai and Haman. Consider how their actions and words reveal their characters and synthesize your conclusions into a simple life lesson that applies to you today.
- Mordecai seemed to have God’s Upper Story in view when he sent word to Esther, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (p. 282). When has God most recently placed you in a position to serve a greater purpose than you desired? How did that make you feel?
- How did Esther respond to Mordecai’s instruction to approach the king and beg for mercy (p. 282)? Other than courage, what else was driving Esther’s response?
- Briefly list all that Haman boasted of to his wife and friends (p. 283). Why then was he not satisfied? What does this teach you about pride and discontentment?
- The story of Esther demonstrates the need for fasting when facing a major crisis. Fasting is not an effort to “bribe” God into granting our request, but instead is done in reverence of His sovereignty and to focus our efforts. Have you ever fasted? What was the result?
- A Medo-Persian king’s edicts could not be repealed. How might your words or speech be different if you could not undo them? (See Matthew 5:37, James 3:1-11, James 5:12, and Ephesians 4:29.)What should characterize a Christian’s words?
- What was supposed to be a day of great destruction became a day of great deliverance and celebration of God’s faithfulness. If you were to commemorate a time when God delivered you or providentially watched over you, what would it be and how would you celebrate it?