The list

After Nehemiah completed rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, he found a list of all the Jews that returned to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon had ended. The list was created at the time of the first exiles return, but was most likely modified later as additional waves of people came back to Jerusalem. The list of people recorded in Nehemiah 7:6-66 began with the names of the men that led the expeditions from as far away as Susa, the capital of Persia. The introduction and conclusion read, “These are the children of the province, that went up out of the captivity, of those that had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezar the king of Babylon had carried away, and came again to Jerusalem and to Judah, every one unto his city; who came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Azariah, Raamiah, Nahamani, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispereth, Bigvai, Nehum, Baanah, The number, I say, of the men of the people of Israel was this…The whole congregation together was forty and two thousand three hundred and threescore” (Nehemiah 7:6-7,66).

The final number; 42,360 represented the totality of what was referred to throughout the Old Testament of the Bible as the remnant. The Hebrew term translated remnant, she’ar (sheh – awr´) or she’eriyth (sheh – ay – reeth´) means a remainder. “The idea of the remnant plays a prominent part in the divine economy of salvation throughout the Old Testament. The remnant concept is applied especially to the Israelites who survived such calamities as war, pestilence, and famine – people whom the Lord in His mercy spared to be His chosen people (2 Kings 19:31; Ezra 9:14). The Israelites repeatedly suffered major catastrophes that brought them to the brink of extinction…Zechariah announced that a remnant would be present at the time of the coming of the Messiah’s kingdom” (7611). The significance of having a list of the returned exiles was the documentation it provided for the size of congregation that met to hear Ezra read from the book of the law (Nehemiah 8:1).

Nehemiah stated, “Now the city was large and great: but the people were few therein, and the houses were not builded” (Nehemiah 7:4). Although the exact dimensions are not known, the size of the rebuilt city of Jerusalem is estimated to be about 4000 feet or less than a mile in length and about 500 – 1000 feet wide. By today’s estimates, the rebuilt city of Jerusalem was actually very small. There would have been about 132 people per acre of land if everyone was living inside the city walls. The Hebrew word Nehemiah used that is translated large actually has nothing to do with size. Yad (yawd) means “a hand (the open one [indicating power, means, direction, etc.] in distinction from 3709, the closed one)…This is a figure of speech, an anthropomorphism, by which God promises his protection” (3027). What Nehemiah was probably saying was that the walled city of Jerusalem was larger than what was needed to protect the 42,360 returned exiles from harm. God had provided them with plenty of room to multiply their numbers.

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Opposition

There were two types of opposition that caused interruptions to the Jews work of rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, internal and external opposition. After the work had started, a group of men showed up that were determined to keep the Jews from making progress. Nehemiah recorded, “But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king?” (Nehemiah 2:19). The continual mocking that took place at their worksite was a type of external opposition that reminded the Jews of the ridicule they could expect if they dared to be different from the people around them. Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem represented dominant cultures that had previously enticed God’s people to reject him. When these influential men heard that the Jews were trying to start over and intended to obey God’s commandments, they did everything they could to put a stop to it.

In spite of the external opposition they faced, the Jews were able to complete the first half of their assignment, but afterwards, they were threatened with a military attack. Nehemiah stated, “And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease” (Nehemiah 3:11). Nehemiah’s response was to arm the people and get them back to work as quickly as possible (Nehemiah 3:13, 15). Surprisingly, the threat of being attacked didn’t make the Jews want to quit, but Nehemiah knew his crew needed to be guarded or their lives could be in danger, so he armed them with weapons. It says in Nehemiah 4:16-18:

And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both, the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah. They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon. For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.

As soon as Nehemiah got the situation with his external opposition under control, an internal conflict broke out. Some of the Jews were upset because their children were being forced into slavery because they were too poor to pay the interest on their debt to the Jewish nobles and rulers (Nehemiah 4:1-4). Nehemiah said, “And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words. Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, You exact usury, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them” (Nehemiah 4:6-7). Nehemiah’s approach to the internal opposition he faced was to take upon himself the responsibility that would normally be expected of a king. The Hebrew phrase Nehemiah used that is translated, “I consulted with myself” could be interpreted as, I put myself in a position of authority, or I took responsibility for the people’s circumstances. When he said he rebuked the nobles, and the rulers and set a great assembly against them, Nehemiah was implying he challenged their leadership openly, as if these men were being put on trial.

Nehemiah was the type of leader that led by example. He didn’t separate himself from the common people, nor did he expect special treatment. One of the things Nehemiah was entitled to as Artaxerxes’ governor of Judah was a daily ration of food. Nehemiah didn’t take this portion from the people as other governors had, but provided regular meals for more than 150 persons out of his own resources. Nehemiah’s explanation for his behavior was  a fear of God and “because the bondage was heavy upon this people” (Nehemiah 4:15, 18). Nehemiah’s motive for overcoming the external and internal opposition he faced seemed to be to protect his reputation with God. Nehemiah appeared to care what God thought of his behavior more than anything else. He prayed to the LORD, “Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people” (Nehemiah 4:19).

Safe travel

After Ezra was designated to lead a caravan of Jews back to Jerusalem, he had to figure out how to get them there safely. It took Ezra about four months to complete the trip of approximately 900 miles (Ezra 7:9). A significant issue that Ezra had to deal with was the freewill offering of precious metals that had been given to him by Artaxerxes and his counsellers. The value of the gold and silver in today’s prices would be around a half a billion dollars. “The vast treasures they were carrying with them offered a tempting bait for robbers” (note on Ezra 8:21). Ezra’s dilemma was that he had told Artaxerxes, the king of Persia that the hand of the LORD was upon him, meaning God had given Ezra supernatural power in order to complete his task. Although he may have been endowed with godly strength and a type of divine courage, Ezra was doubtful he and his men could fight off a band of robbers. Therefore, it says in Ezra 8:21, “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.”

The Hebrew word translated afflict in Ezra 8:21, anah means to humble oneself or to ask for help (6031). Ezra could have assumed that he would be protected because he was doing God’s will, but instead, he stopped what he was doing and directed the people to seek “a right way.” This phrase literally meant they were asking for a straight path to their destination, no obstacles or dangers along the way as they traveled. Ezra admitted that he was too ashamed to ask Artaxerxes for a military escort. He explained, “because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him” (Ezra 8:22). Ezra was probably more concerned about losing the fortune that Artaxerxes had given him than he was about the safety of God’s people. The vast wealth that was entrusted to him was not only a gift to God, but a sacrifice that Artaxerxes expected Ezra to deliver safely to God’s temple in Jerusalem. If he failed, Ezra would bring shame on God because he had boasted that the LORD’s hand was upon him.

A twist of fate

Haman the Agagite’s plan to have all the Jews in the Persian Empire killed was driven by his hatred for Esther’s uncle, Mordecai. After being personally invited to dine with the king and queen, Haman boasted to all of his friends and wife about what an important man he was becoming. It says in Esther 5:12-13. “Haman said moreover, Yea, Esther the queen did let no man come in with the king unto the banquet that she prepared but myself; and to morrow am I invited unto her also with the king. Yet it availeth me nothing, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.” Haman’s wife and friends suggested that he get rid of Mordecai before the banquet so that he could have a good time and not be troubled by the reminder of his disrespectful behavior (Esther 5:14). Haman liked the idea and had a gallows made that night so he could have Mordecai hanged on it the next day.

That night, while the gallows was being prepared, the king was unable to sleep, so he requested to have some of his kingdom record books read to him (Esther 6:1). In a surprising twist of fate, it just so happened that one of the records that was read that night happened to contain an event that had occurred five years earlier in which Mordecai saved the king’s life. It says in Esther 6:3-4, “And the king said, What honour and dignity hath been done to Mordecai for this? Then said the king’s servants that ministered unto him, There is nothing done for him. And the king said, Who is in the court? Now Haman was come into the outward court of the king’s house, to speak unto the king to hang Mordecai on the gallows that he had prepared for him.” The timing of Haman’s visit was such that he ended up being selected by the king to show honour to Mordecai. Rather than obtaining permission to have Mordecai hanged, he was instructed to put the king’s robe on Mordecai and lead him through the city riding on the king’s horse while Haman shouted out “Thus shall it be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour” (Esther 6:11).

Haman’s humiliation was more than he could bare. He went home with his head covered so no one could see the distressed look on his face (Esther 6:12). Haman knew his plan had backfired and he would not be able to get rid of Mordecai, but what he didn’t know yet was that Mordecai was Esther’s uncle and the reason he had been invited to Esther’s banquet was so that she could tell the king it was her people Haman planned to have killed. Haman’s plot to have the Jews exterminated was the cause of not only his downfall, but ultimately his death. After King Ahasuerus was informed of Esther’s true identity and her relationship to Mordecai, Haman was condemned to be hanged on the gallows that he had built the previous night (Esther 7:10).

A mixed reaction

The first wave of exiles from Judah left Jerusalem in 597 B.C. when “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came against the city, and his servants did besiege it” (2 Kings 24:11). At that time, Nebuchadnezzar “carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valour, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and smiths: none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land” (2 Kings 24:14). Even though Nebuchadnezzar took away what could be considered the heart and soul of Jerusalem in 597 B.C., the city remained in tact for another 11 years while king Zedekiah reigned. Zedekiah was what might be called a puppet king. Zedekiah was placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar and was expected to follow his commands, but eventually, Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar and was also taken into captivity (2 Kings 24:7) along with the remainder of his kingdom (2 Kings 25:11). It is believed that on August 14, 586 B.C., Judah’s 70 years of captivity officially began.

A final wave of exiles was taken from Jerusalem in 581 B.C. that consisted of people who had returned or migrated back to the city after Nebuchanezzar’s conquest in 586 B.C. After that, the city lay desolate, completely empty, until Ezra returned with 42,360 people in 538 B.C. to rebuild God’s temple (Ezra 2:65). Some of the people that came back with Ezra had actually been taken from Jerusalem, had survived their period of captivity, and were there to see the temple structure rebuilt. It says in Ezra 3:12, “but many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy.” Their mixed reaction to completing the laying of the foundation of the second temple may have been due to these older mens’ memory of their former life. No doubt some of them suffered from a type of post-traumatic stress syndrome that brought flashbacks to them of the violence they suffered when the temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army.

“The people of Israel were accustomed to showing their emotions in visible and audible ways” (Note on Ezra 3:13). The psalms of David are filled with heartfelt pleas and agonizing cries for mercy that were sung to God for many generations after David died. While they were in exile, it appears that God’s people continued to praise him and were at times even forced to sing the songs that meant so much to them. Psalm 137 is believed to be “A plaintive song of the exile – of one who has recently returned from Babylon but in whose soul there lingers the bitter memory of the years in a foreign land and of the cruel events that led to that enforced stay” (Note on Psalm 137). Contained within Psalm 137’s nine verses are: the remembered sorrow and torment (vv. 1-3), an oath of total commitment to Jerusalem (vv. 4-6), and a call for retribution on Edom and Babylon (vv. 7-9). The notable first verse of the Psalm recalls, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

Among the men that returned to Jerusalem were descendants of the king of Judah, Jehoiachin, who was taken into captivity in 597 B.C. at the age of 18 (2 Kings 24:12). Jehoiachin, his son Shealtiel, and grandson Zerubbabel are listed in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:12). Although Zerubbabel never sat on the throne as king of Judah, he played a prominent role in the reestablishment of the city of Jerusalem and was present at the dedication of the altar. It says of Zerubbabel and his counterpart Jeshua, son of the high priest Jozadak in Ezra 3:2-3, “Then stood up Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brethren the priest, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brethren, and builded the altar of the God of Israel, too offer burnt offerings thereon, as it is written in the law of Moses the man of God. And they set the altar upon his bases, for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries: and they offered burnt offerings thereon unto the LORD, even burnt offerings morning and evening.”

The remnant

The history of a group of God’s people referred to as “the remnant” began around the time of the prophet Isaiah. In his account of Israel’s rebellion, Isaiah declared, “Except the LORD of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:9). Isaiah went on to talk about the birth of a messianic king, God’s anger against Israel, and the destruction of Assyria (Isaiah 9-10:19). Then he said, “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the remnant of Israel, and such as are escaped of the house of Jacob, shall no more again stay upon him that smote them; but shall stay upon the LORD, The Holy One of Israel in truth. The remnant shall return, even the remnant of Jacob, unto the mighty God” (Isaiah 10:20-21).

Isaiah sent a message to the king of Judah at the time that Hezekiah prayed to God for deliverance from Assyria (2 Kings 19:14-19). Isaiah told king Hezekiah, “Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, That which thou hast prayed to me against Sennecherib of Assyria I have heard” (2 Kings 19:20). The Hebrew word translated heard, shama means to hear intelligently or to give undivided attention (8085). Another way of interpreting what God said to Hezekiah would be to say, I know what you’re going through. It could be that the remnant that God saved from his destruction of Judah and Jerusalem was a direct result of king Hezekiah’s prayer. Hezekiah was told, “And the remnant that is escaped of the house of Judah shall yet again take root downward, and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem shall go forth a remnant, and they that escape out of mount Zion: the zeal of the LORD of hosts shall do this” (2 Kings 19:30-31).

According to Ezra, the small remnant that God caused to return to Jerusalem was 42,360 people (Ezra 2:64). Ezra said this was “the whole congregation.” In other words, it was the sum total of the entire population that returned from Babylon: men, women, children, and slaves. My guess is that this was about one-tenth of the population that resided in Jerusalem at the time of their deportation to Babylon. The purpose of their return was to rebuild God’s temple (Ezra 1:2). In order to establish a resource of building materials, it says in Ezra 2:69, “They gave after their ability unto the treasure of the work threescore and one thousand drams of gold, and five thousand pound of silver, and one hundred priests’ garments.” Just to give you an idea of what these metals were worth, a pound of silver was the equivalent of five years wages, so the five thousand pounds of silver was the equivalent of a year of wages for 25,000 men. It is very likely that the 25,000 pounds of silver was the previous year’s wages of every man in the congregation, which may have been given to them as a type of severance pay when they left their jobs in Babylon.

Preferential treatment

Daniel was an extraordinary man for many reasons. His ability to interpret dreams and endurance over time in a kingdom that was hostile toward Jews made him not only unique, but also a living testimony to God’s preferential treatment of his people while they were in exile. Daniel was a part of a select group referred to by God as the remnant. Isaiah said of the remnant, “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the remnant of Israel, and such as are escaped of the house of Jacob, shall no more again stay upon him that smote them; but shall stay upon the LORD, The Holy One of Israel in truth. The remnant shall return, even the remnant of Jacob, unto the mighty God” (Isaiah 10:20-21). According to Isaiah, the remnant would survive when God’s people were subjected to punishment and would bring hope for their expected return to the Promised Land (7605).

After Darius conquered Babylon, Daniel was made the first or head of three presidents that presided over the Persian empire. It says in Daniel 6:3, “Then this Daniel was preferred above the presidents and princes, because an excellent spirit was in him; and the king thought to set him over the whole realm.” The Aramaic term yattiyr, which is translated excellent, is related to the Hebrew word for remnant (3493). To remain or be left meant that those who were members of the remnant would not or could not be killed by Israel’s enemies. The Aramaic term netsach, translated preferred, corresponds to the Hebrew word natsach, which means to glitter from afar (5329) or “the bright object at a distance travelled toward (5331). Daniel had an irresistible quality that caused Darius to be drawn toward him as a leader. Even though Daniel was advanced in age, more than 80 years old, he was highly respected and given significant responsibility considering he was a prisoner of war.

Due to Daniel’s popularity with the king, a conspiracy was formed against him to have him killed. The entire governing body decided to implement a law that would ensure Daniel would be found guilty of treason. They told king Darius, “All the presidents of the kingdom, the governors, and the princes, the counsellers, and the captains, have consulted together to establish a royal statute, and to make a firm decree, that whosoever shall ask a petition of any God or man for thirty days, save of thee, O king, he shall be cast into the den of lions” (Daniel 6:7). Later, when it was discovered that Daniel had broken the law, it says in Daniel 6:16, “Then the king commanded, and they brought Daniel, and cast him into the den of lions. Now the king spake and said unto Daniel, Thy God whom thou servest continually, he will deliver thee.” Darius believed Daniel would be saved from punishment because of his faith in God. After spending the night in the lion’s den, its says of Daniel, “no manner of hurt was found upon him, because he believed in his God” (Daniel 6:23).