Return and Restoration
The glorious temple was in ruins, the beauty of Jerusalem had become a blackened circle of earth, and God’s people were captives in a foreign land. But the story does not end there!
God judges what He plans to restore. And though the judgment of the Israelites was an inescapable result of their sin, it was only a preliminary step towards their future restoration. Its purpose was to teach and develop them. They had learned and developed through it.
But the seventy years of captivity came to an end, and God’s purpose for Israel continued to be fulfilled; He restored His people to their homeland as He had promised. His covenant was eternal. It was an exciting time of new beginnings. Their experience gives us lessons of hope and encouragement today concerning the value of discipline and the possibility of restoration.
Like the Israelites we, too, can be called upon to restore areas of our own lives and ministries for the Lord. Though failure brings discipline, repentance speeds the process of restoration. Let us study these events with this principle in mind, aware of our weaknesses but conscious of His strength.
The Purpose of Restoration
God had made an everlasting covenant with Abraham about his family and descendants. He had repeated the promise to David, making it even stronger. God would not allow the people to whom He had made these promises to be lost in the fall and defeat of earthly kingdoms.
Indeed, the time during which the world was controlled by empires of the East came to an end. Persia was the last great eastern empire. Its power was lost to the Macedonian empire, the first great kingdom of the West. Had the Jewish nation continued in captivity in the East it would not have survived the decline of the eastern powers. It would never have influenced the world. God brought His people to their land in just the right time.
He placed them at the center of world events—right between the old and the new. Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, all the old great powers, had ceased to exist. New empires of the West were beginning to rise. The preservation of God’s people amid the war-storms which totally destroyed the great eastern empires is one of His greatest miracles. It shows us that the most powerful nations decay, but God and His cause and those He saves will never be destroyed. As the prophets foretold, the knowledge of God’s spiritual kingdom was destined to cover the earth. Today we can be a living fulfillment of that prophecy.
The Progress of Rebuilding
In 538 B.C., Babylon, the mighty empire and strong city, fell to Cyrus of Persia. Cyrus had already subdued several eastern kingdoms, and now he had conquered Babylon. According to ancient records, he reversed the policies of the Assyrians and Babylonians in general, freeing all captive peoples to return to their native lands.
It was Cyrus whom God used to begin the process of return and restoration. He sent out an important decree concerning the rebuilding of the temple. It must have amazed the Jews to hear a non-Jew say that the Lord had made him ruler of the whole earth! It was this decree that marked the beginning of the time of restoration and rebuilding.
The Three Expeditions
The process of return and rebuilding covered a time span of about 100 years total. Beginning with Cyrus, other Persian kings were also involved. During these years there were three major expeditions of Jews from Persia to Israel. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the events that occurred.
The First Expedition
The number who are counted as returning with Zerubbabel might well represent only heads of families. Actually there might have been many more people. Nevertheless, the total number was still a small percentage of the Jews remaining in captivity. Many of them were prosperous and settled. They were not anxious to go back to Palestine to form a struggling little nation.
The journey was difficult and took at least four months. (Later on when Ezra came it took him four months according to Ezra 7:9). They arrived and began rebuilding the temple. The altar was set up and the foundation of the temple was laid (Ezra 3). Stones were available, but the wooden timbers had to be brought from Lebanon.
There was much opposition from enemies, and for 16 years the rebuilding of the temple stopped (Ezra 4). During this time God used the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to inspire the people to begin working again. The people responded, and the temple was completed and dedicated in about 516 B.C. (Ezra 5–6).
The Second Expedition
Ezra, a scribe and priest, led the second expedition from Babylon to Jerusalem about sixty years after the temple had been completed (Ezra 7). He came with letters from king Artaxerxes which told the neighboring officials to offer protection and material help to God’s people.
Ezra, who was a descendant of the house of Aaron, had a mission which was primarily spiritual. He brought along with him a number of priests. When he arrived he discovered heartbreaking abuses in the worship and practice of the people who had settled in Jerusalem. He stopped these abuses and made many reforms.
The Third Expedition
Nehemiah is one of the greatest characters of the Bible. As cupbearer or wine steward to King Artaxerxes he held a high position in the Persian court. Because of his position he had great political power. He was told that conditions in Jerusalem were not good, and he asked permission to go to rebuild the city. Artaxerxes granted his request, and he traveled to Jerusalem accompanied by a group of soldiers the king had sent. His position, along with his godly character, made it possible for him to strengthen the Jews.
In only 52 days the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt in spite of the opposition from the enemies of the Jews. After the walls were rebuilt Nehemiah took steps to bring stability and increase the number of people who lived in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 7:4–5; 11:1–2). He caused the wealthy Jews to stop oppressing the poor (Nehemiah 5:10) and introduced other reforms. But his greatest work was to re-establish the national life of the Jews upon the foundation of the written law (Nehemiah 10:28–39).
The Messages to Restorers
As we have seen, the task of rebuilding and spiritual rebirth had much opposition. There were those on the outside who did not want to see God’s work restored, and there were those on the inside who became easily discouraged. But during this time of rebuilding God had a word for His people. Both Haggai and Zechariah prophesied during the years the temple was being rebuilt. Their messages were meaningful to the people at the time they were given and also have marvelous insights into the future.
Work on the rebuilding of the temple had ceased for almost ten years when Haggai gave his first message. He rebuked the people for their lack of concern for God’s house. Read Haggai 1–2 before continuing.
The book of Zechariah, though only fourteen chapters long, contains some of the most important prophecies of the Old Testament The rebuilding which had begun after the people had responded to Haggai’s message had been stopped. It was during this time that Zechariah received a series of eight visions concerning the reasons why the rebuilding had stopped (Zechariah 1–8). He was also given glorious promises of the future (Zechariah 9–14). Read Zechariah 1–14 before continuing.
The message of the eight visions was received by Zechariah two months after the cornerstone of the temple had been laid. Among the reasons why the rebuilding had stopped were the following:
- A sense of hopelessness and futility. The Jews saw themselves as unimportant. They felt they were doing something which really did not matter. But God said that He himself would come to Jerusalem and would claim the city as His own (1:17).
- The results of sin and disobedience. God showed Zechariah that He would overthrow the nations that He had allowed to bring judgment upon His people (1:20–21).
- A realization of condemnation and guilt. God showed Zechariah the high priest Joshua dressed in dirty garments being accused by Satan. But Joshua’s garments were replaced by new ones, and God promised to remove the guilt of the land (3:5, 9)
- A feeling of powerlessness. Zechariah was given a message of encouragement for Zerubbabel and all others: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit’” (Zechariah 4:6).
Besides these visions there were others, such as the man with the measuring line (2:1–5). In this vision, the time when Jerusalem would be fully inhabited was prophesied. Also important in this first part of the book of Zechariah is a prophecy of the righteous “Branch,” of whom Joshua was a picture (6:12– 13).
In the second part of the book (chapters 9–14) there are other messages about the Messiah and the future of God’s people. Israel will be cleansed (13:1), and one day all nations will worship the Lord (14:9).
Often we are called upon to restore in our lives things that have been lost. Sometimes we need to begin again to have times of worshipping God together as families. On other occasions we may be called upon to help re-establish the broken ministry of a brother or sister in the Lord. The lessons from this section of the Bible are a great help in those times.
The Last Warning to God’s People
The book of Malachi is sometimes called the “little Old Testament” because it contains in short form several of the major themes of the Old Testament: God’s choice of Israel, Israel’s sins and disobedience, the importance of obeying the law, and the coming of the day of the Lord. It is probable that Malachi wrote his message after many years had passed following the return of the Jews to Jerusalem. Their first enthusiasm had left them. They were again religiously cold and morally loose. Read Malachi 1–4 before continuing.
Malachi spoke as a reformer, yet he also encouraged the people of God with a vision of the future. He prophesied that “the prophet Elijah” would appear before the coming of the day of the Lord (Malachi 3:1, 4:5). Four centuries of silence passed. But when God’s time came, the prophet Elijah appeared to introduce the Messiah, Jesus (Matthew 11:10, 14).
The Old Testament is rich in meaning for us today. I hope this course has helped you to understand its message of trust in the living God. He is still the same today as He was when He walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve, called Abraham to serve Him, brought His people out of Egypt with mighty wonders, talked with Moses face to face, inspired king David to write the Psalms, and spoke through the lives and words of His servants the prophet. As you continue to read and study the Old Testament and its record of the experiences of God’s people remember this:
“These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).