An amazing turn around

The book of Ezra contains two parts of the amazing story about the Jews return to the Promised Land after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Their initial return started in 538 B.C. when Cyrus declared that the LORD God of heaven had given him all the kingdoms of the earth and charged him to build him a house in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2). After 80 years of start and stop activity directed at rebuilding the once great city of Jerusalem, a second wave of Jewish settlers returned to the Promised Land. This time, God’s people were led by Ezra, a priest that was a direct descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. It says in Ezra 7:6, “This Ezra went up from Babylon; and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him.”

The king referred to in Ezra 7:6 was Artaxerxes king of Persia, the son of Ahasuerus, the Persian king that was married to Esther. At the beginning of his reign, Artaxerxes had ordered God’s people to stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:23). In the seventh year of his reign, Artaxerxes wrote a letter to Ezra stating:

I make a decree, that all they of the people of Israel, and of his priests and Levites, in my realm, which are minded of their own freewill to go up to Jerusalem, go with thee. Forasmuch as thou art sent of the king, and of his seven counsellers, to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem, according to the law of thy God which is in thine hand; and to carry the silver and gold, which the king and his counsellers have freely offered unto the God of Israel, whose habitation is in Jerusalem. (Ezra 7:13-15)

According to Artaxerxes decree, any Jew that wanted to leave Persia and return to Israel was free to do so. Artaxerxes and his counsellers gave of their own wealth a freewill offering to God and supplied everything that was needed for the people’s journey back to Jerusalem. This amazing turn around might best be described as an act of divine intervention because no reason was given in Ezra’s book to explain why Artaxerxes was compelled to go to such great lengths to ensure the Jews were able to return to Jerusalem after having put a stop to their rebuilding effort only a few years earlier. Perhaps, God touched the heart of Artaxerxes or the king saw the benefit of having God on his side. Unlike his predecessor Cyrus, Artaxerxes didn’t claim the LORD had given him his kingdom (Ezra 1:2). Therefore, Artaxerxes motivation may have been to gain favor with God. If so, it appears he was successful because his 40+ year reign was the longest of all the kings of Persia.

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Destiny

Almost from the start of his relationship with the people of Israel, God predicted that they would turn away from him and worship idols. It says in Deuteronomy 28:36-37 of Israel’s captivity, “The LORD shall bring thee, and thy king which thou shalt set over thee, unto a nation which neither thou nor thy fathers have known; and there shalt thou serve other gods, wood and stone. And thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all nations whither the LORD shall lead thee.” Later in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses predicted that the Israelites would return to the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 30:5). He said:

And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath driven thee, and shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I  command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; that then the LORD thy Good will turn thy captivity and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee. (Deuteronomy 30:1-3)

Jeremiah prophesied a 70 year Babylonian captivity. He said specifically of Judah and Jerusalem, “And this whole land shall be a desolation, and an astonishment; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. And it shall come to pass, when seventy years are accomplished, that I will punish the king of Babylon, and that nation, saith the LORD, for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans, and will make it perpetual desolations” (Jeremiah 25:11-12). Babylon’s punishment came at the hands of Cyrus king of Persia. His conquest of Babylon in 538 B.C. set the stage for the Israelites’ return to their homeland. It says in Ezra 1:1-2:

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The LORD God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth: and he hath charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.

The Hebrew word translated charged in Ezra 1:2, paqad (paw – kad´) means to visit (6485). This word was used in Genesis 21:1 where it says, “And the LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did unto Sarah as he had spoken.” The LORD visited Sarah in order to intervene on her behalf, “so as to demonstrate the divine intervention in the normal course of events to bring about or fulfill a divine intent” (6485). God’s divine intervention in the normal course of events through king Cyrus’ proclamation meant that the Israelites would return to the Promised Land exactly when Jeremiah predicted they would.

It could be said that destiny is the inevitable occurrence of something predicted or prearranged. Although God has given us a free will, meaning we are completely able to control our own lives, he somehow manages to accomplish his purposes anyway. In response to Cyrus’ proclamation, it says in Ezra 1:5, “Then rose up the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, with all them whose spirit God had raised, to go up to build the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem.” The statement, “all of them whose spirit God had raised,” suggests that God literally picked them up or caused these men to rise to their feet. There is no indication though that the men that left Babylon after 70 years of captivity were being forced to do so. They merely responded to Cyrus’ proclamation, and of their own free will, did exactly what God predicted they would hundreds of years earlier.

Cultural change

The Israelites’ exile into Babylon created a situation in which their lives were strongly influenced by the Babylonian culture. It is likely there was a deliberate attempt by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, to wipe out any remembrance of their former way of life. The book of Daniel opens with a recount of the events that led up to their captivity. He said, “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah came Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon unto Jerusalem, and besieged it. And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with part of the vessels of the house of God: which he carried into the land of Shinar to the house of his god; and he brought the vessels into the treasure house of his god” (Daniel 1:1-2).

The Hebrew word translated vessels in Daniel 1:2, keliy (kel – ee´) refers to something prepared (3627). It is derived from the word kalah which means to cease, be finished or perish (3615). Although the instruments that were taken were not identified, it can be assumed that they were critical and were taken so that worship services would be interrupted, or perhaps even permanently terminated. According to Daniel’s record, certain young men from the king of Judah’s household were also brought into king Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in order to indoctrinate them into the Chaldean culture. Daniel said these young men were, “children in whom there was no blemish, but well favoured, and skilful in wisdom, and cunning in knowledge, and understanding science, and such as had ability in them to stand in the king’s palace, and whom they might teach the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:4).

Four young men were singled out by the king’s servant and given new names, a sign of conversion or adoption of the Babylonian gods they were expected to worship. Daniel said, “Now among these were of the children of Judah, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: unto whom the prince of the eunuchs gave names: for he gave Daniel the name of Belteshazzar; and to Hananiah, of Shadrach; and to Mishael, of Meshach; and to Azariah, of Abed-nego” (Daniel 1:6-7). In spite of the extreme pressure they must have felt to conform to king Nebuchadnezzar’s demands; Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah refused to cooperate with their captor’s subtle attempts to brainwash them. It says of Daniel that “he purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself” (Daniel 1:8). The Hebrew term for defile has to do with reputation and is associated with the kinsman redeemer who was expected to “raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance. Thus the kinsman redeemer was responsible for preserving the integrity, life, property, and family name of his close relative” (1350).

 

Captivity

The nations of Israel and Judah were not the only ones God sent into captivity. Their exile was merely an example of God’s sovereign right to control the rise and fall of kingdoms on earth. The first mention of captivity in the Bible was in Numbers 21:29 where it says, “Woe to thee, Moab! Thou art undone, O people of Chemosh: he hath given his sons that escaped, and his daughters into captivity unto Sihon king of the Amorites.” As early as the book of Deuteronomy, even before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, it was declared that God intended to send his people into captivity. Regarding the rewards of repentance, it states, “That then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee” (Deuteronomy 30:3).

The goal of captivity was repentance and an acknowledgment of God’s ultimate authority over mankind. The primary reason God sent his and other people into captivity was they would not obey him. A stubborn refusal to submit to God’s sovereign will caused the people of Egypt to be singled out and punished numerous times. Ezekiel identified pride as the root cause of the Egyptians’ problem and was told, “Speak, and say, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of the rivers, which hath said, My river is mine own, and I have made it for myself” (Ezekiel 29:3). In order to extend Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom beyond the borders of Palestine and to show that God could take any kingdom he wished to for his own, Egypt was given into the hands of the king of Babylon. Ezekiel was told:

Son of man, Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon caused his army to serve a great service against Tyrus: every head was made bald, and every shoulder was peeled: yet had he no wages, nor his army, for Tyrus, for the service that he had served against it: therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will give the land of Egypt unto Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon: and he shall take her multitude, and take her spoil, and take her prey; and it shall be the wages for his army. (Ezekiel 29:18-19).

God’s ability to speak things into existence and to destroy his enemies through a prophetic word was demonstrated in his overthrow of Egypt. Ezekiel recorded this command, “And I will make the rivers dry, and sell the land into the hand of the wicked: and I will make the land waste, and all that is therein, by the hand of strangers: I the LORD have spoken it” (Ezekiel 30:12). Even though the Egyptians did not present a military threat to the Israelites, God decided to remove them from their land and send them into captivity so that they would no longer draw God’s people away from him. The kings of Israel and Judah had a history of calling on the Egyptians for help and would not relinquish their dependence on a nation that worshipped idols. Ezekiel was told regarding Eygpt, “It shall be the basest of the kingdoms; neither shall it exalt itself any more above the nations: for I will diminish them, that they shall no more rule over the nations. And it shall be no more the confidence of the house of Israel, which bringeth their iniquity to remembrance, when they shall look after them: but they shall know that I am the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 29:15-16).

The forgotten king

King Jehoiachin’s brief reign of only three months over the nation of Judah may be why he is often overlooked or forgotten, although he was obedient to the LORD. There is conflicting information about his age when he took over for his father Jehoiakim. It says in 2 Kings 24:8 that Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign and in 2 Chronicles 36:9 it says he was eight. Whether he was eight or eighteen, Jehoiachin was exceptionally young to become king.

In the third month of his reign, Jehoiachin was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar and carried away to Babylon (2 Kings 24:15). He was the last descendant of king David to actually sit on the throne and rule over God’s people. King Zedekiah, who was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar to replace Jehoiachin, was the son of Josiah, Jehoiachin’s grandfather. After he was transported to Babylon, Jehoiachin was referred to as Jeconiah or just Coniah, the son of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:24). The Greek form of his name, Jechonias is listed in the geneology of Jesus in Matthew 1:11-12.

Jehoiachin was considered to be despised by the LORD because none of his descendants ever reigned, “sitting upon the throne of David” (Jeremiah 23:30), but Jehoiachin’s grandson, Zerubbabel became governor of Judah after the exiles returned to the Promised Land (Haggai 1:1). A pivotal point in the life of Jehoiachin is recorded in Jeremiah 52:31-34. It says that he was released from prison in the thirty-seventh year of his captivity and was given daily rations from the king of Babylon.

Evidence of Jerhoichin’s survival has been found in Babylon. According to archeological records, “Jehoiachin and his family were kept in Babylon, where clay ration receipts bearing his name have been found” (Exile of the Southern Kingdom). The fact that Jehoiachin was not killed like many of the other important officials from Judah (Jeremiah 52:27) and was later shown great respect by the Babylonian king (Jeremiah 52:32) shows that God was intentionally working to save his life, and the lives of his sons and grandsons, in order to preserve the royal blood line.

The remnant

Throughout the Old Testament of the Bible, the concept of a remnant was used to signify God’s intent to preserve mankind in spite of his sin nature or tendency to abandon God and seek after the pleasures of this world. The first example of a remnant was Noah and his family whom God saved from the flood that destroyed all life on earth. When God determined to destroy the nation of Judah, he said, “Yet will I leave a remnant, that ye may have some that shall escape the sword among the nations, when ye shall be scattered through the countries” (Ezekiel 6:8).

Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came against the city of Jerusalem in 597 B.C. For three years, king Jehoiakim had been paying tribute to Nebuchadnezzar, but “then he turned and rebelled against him” (2 Kings 24:1). As a result of Jehoiakim’s actions, God began to destroy the nation of Judah (2 Kings 24:2). Nebuchadnezzar’s attack on Judah in 597 B.C. resulted in the majority of people recognized as the remnant that God intended to preserve being taken into captivity in Babylon. Among the captives was king Jehoiachin, the son of Jehoiakim who “went out to the king of Babylon, he, and his mother, and his servants, and his princes, and his officers” (2 Kings 24:12).

The number of captives taken to Babylon was reported to be 10,000 in 2 Kings 24:14, but Jeremiah’s report suggested there were only about 3,000 survivors from the initial group taken into captivity (Jeremiah 52:28). The total number of persons in the remnant of the nation of Judah was reported to be 4,600 (Jeremiah 52:30). Regardless of the actual number, it could be said that the remnant of Judah was so small that it could easily have been absorbed into the Babylonian culture and disappeared as a separate people group. It was only because God intentionally chose to preserve them that the remnant of Judah remained independent and were faithful to their identity as God’s chosen people.

Not too hard

While the city of Jerusalem was under siege from king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Jeremiah was kept in prison so he couldn’t speak to the people and discourage them from fighting (Jeremiah 38:4). About halfway through a two-year battle that was eventually lost, Jeremiah received a message from the LORD. “And Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Behold, Hanameel the son of Shallum thine uncle shall come unto thee, saying, Buy thee my field that is in Anathoth: for the right of redemption is thine to buy it…And I bought the field of Hanameel my uncle’s son, that was in Anathoth, and weighed him the money, even seventeen shekels of silver” (Jeremiah 32:6-7,9).

Jeremiah’s act of obedience to the Mosaic Law served two purposes. First, it was a sign of Jeremiah’s faith that he believed God would return his people to the Promised Land after their captivity was completed. Second, Jeremiah’s redemption of his cousin’s property demonstrated that normal economic activity was expected to resume after the exile. Judah’s captivity would not change the course of events. It was meant to reset, not alter the execution of God’s covenant with his people.

One of the main problems that existed at the time of Judah’s captivity was a lack of faith. No one really believed God could or would save his people. As a means of establishing his ability to do the impossible, God intended to destroy the city of Jerusalem, and then, to bring it back to life again. Jeremiah declared, “Ah Lord GOD! behold, thou hast made the heaven and the earth by thy great power and stretched out arm, and there is nothing too hard for thee” (Jeremiah 32:17). What was not too hard for God was to make his people want to obey his commandments. In other words, for God’s people to have faith in him.

One of the reasons the Israelites did not obey God was he had never punished them. In a sense, you could say, they had gotten away with their sins, and therefore, continued to do what they knew was not right. Also, there was probably a sense that God couldn’t or wouldn’t punish them, so there was no need for them to repent. In some ways, you could say God’s people were leading double lives. They offered sacrifices to God and continued to sin as if the two had nothing to do with each other; there was no connection in their minds.

God’s answer to the problem of disobedience or lack of faith was to give his people a desire to know  him, to have a personal relationship with him. God told his people they were to obey his voice (Exodus 19:5), but they had stopped listening. They were distracted by their sin and interest in accumulating wealth. God said to Jeremiah, “And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them” (Jeremiah 32:39). In essence, what God was saying was he would give his people only one option, they would obey him or they would not live in the Promised Land.