The Restoration

Ezra 1-3

It had been foretold by the prophet Jeremiah, that, at the expiration of seventy years—dating, it would seem, from the  first expatriation under Jehoiachin—the captive Jews should return to their own land; and before that, Isaiah had predicted that this should take place under an unborn king called Cyrus, of whom high things were spoken.

When the seventy years had expired, the Babylonian empire had ceased, and Cyrus the Persian had become master of the many realms of which it had been composed, as well as of the more eastern empire of the Medes and Persians. In the very first year of his imperial reign, this king issued a decree distinctly recognizing these prophecies, acknowledging the authority by which they were given, and his obligation to act upon them. He accordingly permitted such as wished, to return to their own country, and to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem; allowing them also to collect funds from such as chose to remain behind, and with the promise of the royal protection and encouragement in the undertaking.

Accordingly, a large caravan was formed of the more devout and zealous Jews, as they now begin to be called, who were liberally supplied with treasure from the bounty of those who, preferring to remain in the east, felt the more induced to evince their less adventurous zeal by the liberality of their contributions. The king also caused to be made over to them the vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple. Their leader, who went with the appointment of governor of the colony, was the lineal representative of the house of David, being the grandson of Jeconiah, and is distinctly recognized by Cyrus as “the prince of the Jews.” He was born in Babylon, and his name was Zerubbabel; but, as appears to have been usual with the great men of Judah during the captivity, he had another name—that of Sheshbazzar which he was known among the heathen.

We need not trace the history of the colony, which is in the main too plainly stated to require illustration; but there are a few points to which it will be desirable to refer.

The first question that probably occurs to every one who opens the Book of Ezra is, How came Cyrus to be so well  informed of the matters to which his proclamation refers, and to be so impressed with the power of Jehovah as to acknowledge him as “the God of heaven,” and that he owed to him all the greatness to which he had attained? “Jehovah, 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.” Now it is not difficult to trace the channel through which Cyrus might become acquainted with these matters, and probably did so. At his first coming to Babylon, he found the prophet Daniel there, as an old minister of state—renowned throughout the empire for great wisdom, faithfulness, and experience. How well he knew and respected his character is shown by the fact, that he not only continued him in office, but, on settling his newly acquired empire, made him superintendent over all the provinces of the empire—an office which most have given him a degree of rank and power scarcely less, if at all less, than equivalent with that of an eastern vizier or European first minister. This position was just the one which rendered him qualified, at this important juncture of affairs, to be of most essential service to his people; and he himself informs us that his attention had been particularly drawn to the fact, that the seventy years of the captivity had expired. Nothing can therefore be more probable—indeed, it is as probable as anything short of absolute certainty can be—that Daniel brought the prophecies of Isaiah concerning himself under the notice of the king; and as he could prove that these prophecies had been written long before Cyrus was born, and as it was seen that in these prophecies his victories were foretold, and the Lord declared himself to be the giver of all his greatness, and claimed him as His “servant”—as one appointed and commissioned to do His pleasure—Cyrus, as a candid man, possessed of higher notions of the Godhead than mere idolaters could realize—could not fail to acquiesce in the evidence thus presented before his mind; and it is likely that when this disclosure had made its proper impression, Daniel opened the prophecy of  Jeremiah, and showed that the time for the restoration of Israel had come.

After so long an interval, very few of the original captives could be alive. The great body of the existing generation had been born and bred in Babylon, which was thus, in fact, their native country. As a body, they throve well there; and ceasing to take interest, unless in certain localities, in the culture of the soil, that change of habit and pursuit took place among them which has ever since been maintained—and they probably followed nearly the same vocations in the ancient as they do in the modern Babylon, and other cities of our own country—and presented nearly the same aspect to the ancient Chaldeans as they do to the modern Britons, apart, however, from the special odium they have incurred among Christians on our Lord’s account. They became then traders, peddlers, money-changers, money-lenders, jewelers, and possibly dealers in old clothes. Upon the whole, they were so comfortable and satisfied with their position, that, although unshaken in their attachment to Judaism, they felt but little disposition to forego their realized advantages, and break up their homes, to encounter the perils of the wilderness; and to undergo the privations and trials to which a small settlement in a deserted country must expect to be exposed. The largest, the wealthiest, and the noblest portion of the nation, therefore, took no part in the movement, except by their sympathies, and by their bountiful contributions in furtherance of the object; and it has ever been the sentiment of the Jews, that the most illustrious part of their nation voluntarily remained in the land of their exile.
Those who did go were such as were animated by stronger desires to behold and possess once more their father’s land, and to restore the Lord’s house in Jerusalem—and such as were less attached by prosperity and family ties to the land of their sojourning. That the great body of them were of the poorer sort, is shown, among other circumstances, by the fact, that although there were 42,360 Jews who returned, they had but 7337 male and female servants among them; and still  more by the circumstance, that the long and perilous journey across the desert was performed by the greater part of them on foot; that of those who did ride, the far greater part were on asses, animals never now employed on such journeys; and that, indeed, the whole number of animals could scarcely have been sufficient for the women and children, even on a low computation. It is probable, however, that although those who had families took them, as they had no intention of returning, a very considerable portion of those who did go were unmarried; a fact which explains their readiness in contracting marriages soon after their arrival with the women of the neighboring heathen. There were but 435 camels, the animals best suited for the journey, and not more than 736 horses. These, we suppose, were ridden by persons of condition, and the camels by their families. Of mules, then a more favorite animal than now, there were but 245, while the asses were 6720; in all, little more than 8,000 animals, for not fewer than 50,000 persons, including servants.

Considering the circumstances of the returned exiles, and the constant opposition which they met with from the strangers who had intruded into the land, or who dwelt upon the borders, together with the time required for the collection of materials, it is clear that strong exertions were made by the pilgrims to forward the great work they had undertaken; for, by the fourteenth month after their return, they were enabled to lay the foundations of the temple. That was a great day for them, and the ceremony took place with as much of grandeur and solemnity as their means allowed. It is affecting to read, that while the younger men who had been born in a strange land, shouted with joy to see the foundations of this goodly structure laid in the sacred city of their fathers, the older men, who had seen the first temple, “wept with a loud voice,” so that it was impossible to distinguish the noise of the shouting from that of the weeping. What wept they for? Not certainly that the foundations were inferior in extent, or because there were marks of littleness in anything then before their eyes—but because they  looked forward, and saw that there was not the least probability that the structure, the foundations of which were then laid—the effort of a small company of strangers in their own land—would ever make even the most faint approach in splendor and magnificence to the ancient building, on which the long savings of David and the wealth of Solomon were lavishly expended. Some say that they lamented, rather, the absence of the five great things which glorified the first temple, but which were not to be found in the second—the ark of the covenant, the sacred fire on the altar, the Urim and Thummim, the Shekinah or sacred symbol of the Divine presence, and the spirit of prophecy. But the spirit of prophecy was not then extinct, seeing that Haggai and Zechariah prophesied; and as for the Shekinah and sacred fire, they could not, until the completion of the building, know that these would be wanting. We think, therefore, that their mourning arose from the perception that the new temple, taken altogether, would be “as nothing in comparison with the first.” So says Hag_2:7; Hag_2:9, who was commissioned to comfort them by the assurance, that the deficiency of this temple in exterior glory, should be abundantly compensated by the coming of the Messiah, whose presence should give to the second house a glory greater than that which the first house could boast.

The fact that the noise of the weeping equaled that of the rejoicing shouts, strikes an English reader as something strange. It will remind him, however, of the frequent phrase, “He lifted up his voice and wept.” The fact is, indeed, that the Orientals do at this day lift up their voices to some purpose when they weep. Silent tears, inaudible grief, are unknown—loud lamentations and mournful cries, rather than tears, being regarded as the proper and comely expression of grief. In fact, the Scriptures throughout corroborate travelled experience, in showing that sorrow is not only more demonstrative, but is more commonly expressed, in the East than with us; so that not only women and children, but grown-up and full-bearded men, are prone to weep and  lament, even under these common crosses and vexations which we should consider insufficient to warrant any sensible demonstration of grief.