The Captives Returned to Jerusalem: Part 1

Ezra 1‑6  •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 7
(Ezra 1-4)
When we enter the Book of Ezra, we begin the story of the returned captives; we see them in their circumstances, and in their behavior; and from both one and the other we gather instruction.
In much of their condition we read much of our own: and from their behavior, we are either taught, or encouraged, or warned. As we trace their story, we may well be struck by the resemblance it has to our own; so that, from moral kindredness in their condition and ours, we may call them our brethren in something of a special sense.
Having accomplished their journey from Babylon to Jerusalem, we find them at once in much moral beauty; they are what they have, they do what they can, but they do not assume or affect what they have not and what they cannot. They have the word, and they use it. They do their best with the genealogies, so as to preserve the purity of the priesthood and the sanctuary; but they do not affect to do what the Urim and the Thummim would enable them to do, for they have it not.
This is beautiful; they do not refuse to do what they can, because they cannot do all that they would. Their measure they will use, and not quarrel with it because it is small. And yet they stretch not themselves beyond it, but wait till another comes with a further and more perfect measure.
They are quick to raise an altar to the God of Israel. They need not build their temple first. An altar will do for burnt-offerings and for the feast of Tabernacles; and, as a revived people, as a people consciously standing on holy ground again, on the mystic day, the first day of the seventh month, they raise their altar and begin their worship.
This was very fine. It was as the instinct that prompted Noah, as soon as he got out of the ark, to offer his sacrifices; or, as that of David, as soon as he reached the throne, to look after the ark of God.
Israel raised no altar in Egypt—they must go into the wilderness, ere they could offer a sacrifice, or keep a feast, to the Lord. Egypt was the place of the flesh, and of judgment; and deliverance out of it must be accomplished, ere God could duly receive worship at their hand. And so in Babylon: Israel raised no altar there. One might open his window, and pray towards Jerusalem; three or four might make common prayer for mercy and wisdom; in a day of perplexity, they may all together hang their harps upon willows, refusing to sing the songs of Zion there; but they raised no altar in that land of the uncircumcised. But now again in Jerusalem the altar is built, and sacrifices rendered; worship is restored, as Israel is revived. The two things which God has joined together, the glory of His name, and the blessing of His people, are at once seen in the returned captives.
But, further, as soon as the foundation of the Temple is laid, a strange thing is heard—that which could not but be a discord of harsh sounds in the ear of nature, a harmony of hallowed voices in the ear of God and of faith. There are weepings and cries for sorrow, there are shoutings for joy. But, weighed in the balances, all this was harmony; for all was real, all was “to the Lord.”
As some observed a day, and some might once refuse to observe it, and this may appear to be disorder; but each doing what they did “to the Lord,” the highest order was maintained (see Rom. 14): the Spirit so esteems it.
There is, however, more than this. There is real confusion, and that in abundance, as well as this apparent occasional discord. The condition of things is incurably intricate and confused. What a godly Jew must have felt, when he found himself again in the land where David had conquered, where Solomon had reigned, where the glory had dwelt, and the priesthood unto Jehovah had waited on its service!
Such an one may, at that moment, have given the first look at himself; and he would have had to recognize in himself a strange sight in the land where he then found himself, the subject of a Gentile power. Next, looking at his brethren, he would have to say, that some of them were with him, but some still far away among the uncircumcised; and then, taking a wider gaze at the people of the land, he would have to see a seed of corruption, half Jew half heathen, in the place which had once been shared among the seed of Abraham, and them only!
What sights were these! What needed light and energy to deal with and act upon this strange mass of difficulties and contradictions! But that light and energy are beautifully found amongst them. They, who had maintained their Nazariteship in Babylon, would keep it, if need be, in Judge; they, who would not eat the king's meat there, will not have Samaritan alliance in the building of the Temple here. And they distinguish things that differ; they know the Persian, and they know the Samaritan: bowing to the sword and authority of the one, as set over them by ordination of God; and refusing the proffered aid of the other, as being themselves untrue to the God of their fathers.
This is like an anticipation of the Lord's own judgment to returned captives in His day; “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” And it reminds me of their fathers in the wilderness, where they knew the Edomite and the Amorite in their different relations to them; as here, their children know the Samaritan and the Persian. They do nothing in a spirit of rebellion. They will be subject to the “powers that be,” as knowing them “ordained of God.” But religious impurity they repudiate. It is full of instruction, all this, and very pertinent to present conditions among ourselves. These things, or the principles which are found and involved in them, re-appear among the saints of this day.
Faith still recognizes that “salvation” is the ground of “worship” (John 4). That is, that while we are in the flesh, God gets nothing from us; that the place of discipline, such as Babylon was to Israel, is to witness only the service and the rendering of harps hung on willow trees.
Faith still uses the written word in all things; affects nothing beyond its measure; while it does what it can according to its measure. It does not cast away what it has, because it has not more. It does not say, “There is no hope,” and sit idle, because power in certain forms of glory does not belong to us; but it will not imitate power, or fashion the image of what is now departed. And it waits for the day when all will be set in eternal order and beauty, by the presence of Him who is the true light and perfection, and who will settle all things in the kingdom according to God.
Faith, likewise, still listens with a different ear from that of nature. As I have already alluded to it, so here again, I may say, that Rom. 14, like Ezra 3 tells us, that that which is discordance in the ear of flesh and blood is harmony in the ear of God.
And surely, I may add, faith still recognizes confusion. If we see it in Israel in the day of Ezra, we see it among the saints and churches in the day of 2 Timothy; and the day of 2 Timothy was but the beginning of the present long day of Christendom, or of “the great house.” Strangely inconsistent elements surround us, as they did the returned captives. Gentile supremacy in the land; the offered aid, and then the bitter enmity, of Samaritans; some of God's Israel still in Babylon, while others have returned to Jerusalem. All this did not afford them stranger, more singular or anomalous materials, to distinguish and act upon, than the present great house of Christendom, with its clean and unclean vessels, some to honor, and some to dishonor, affords to us.
We may, however, be encouraged as well as instructed by these captives. For, while ancient glory and strength are not seen among them, Urim and Thummim lost, ark of covenant gone, the mystic rod and the cloudy pillar no more known and seen; yet was there more energy and light, and a deeper exercise of spirit, in the returned from Babylon, than in the redeemed from Egypt.
5, 6.
This is so, indeed, as we have seen.
We soon find, however, that we have more to say; that if we be instructed and encouraged by the returned captives, so surely may we be warned by them. They need a revival, though now returned to Jerusalem, as they needed it, when they were still in Babylon.
The decree of Artaxerxes had stopped the building of the Temple. Nature, or the flesh,1 takes advantage of this: and the captives begin to adorn their own houses, as soon as they get leisure, and are free of their labor in building the Lord's house.
What a warning this is! It has been said, that it is easier to gain a victory than to use it. We may conquer in the fight, but be defeated by the victory. The returned Jews had gained a victory, when they refused the offers and the alliance of the Samaritans. They were right to resent any help which would have compromised their holiness. But they now abuse the victory. The Samaritans had got a decree from the Persian king to stop the building of the Temple; and the leisure thus generated becomes a snare to the remnant. They use it in ceiling and adorning their own houses: very natural; but very humbling to think of it. Abraham had done far better than this. With his trained servants he gains the day in his encounter with the confederated kings; but then one victory only leads to another, for he refuses the offers of the king of Sodom immediately afterward. But here leisure conquers those who had but lately conquered the Samaritans. This was more like David, if unlike Abraham. David fought his way nobly from the day of the lion and the bear to the day of the throne; but he betrays relaxation, carelessness of heart, on the very first occasion which occupies him as a king. David puts the ark of God on a new cart drawn by oxen!
“Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your celled houses, and this house lie waste?” says the convicting rebuking Spirit by the prophet Haggai.
This is humbling and yet a healthful warning. Our hearts well understand this—how nature takes quick and earnest advantage of these its opportunities. But though the captives be led under Persian rule, yet the Spirit of God is unbound, and can revive His ancient grace in sending His prophets to them. For this was His ancient grace. This had been His well-known way all along, from before the day of king Saul, till after the day of king Zedekiah, i.e., from the first of the kings of Israel to the last, from 1 Sam. 1 to 2 Chron. 36 All along that course of time, generation after generation, prophets had been sent again and again to rebuke, to instruct, or to encourage kings and their people. Samuel, and Nathan, and Gad, Shemaiah, Jahaziah, and Azariah, Elijah and Elisha, with others, had thus ministered while Israel was a nation; and now Haggai and Zechariah are sent, as kindred prophets with them, to the returned captives: the sweet witness that the old form of the grace of God towards His people was still to be in use, that they might know, in every age and in all conditions, that they were not straitened in Him.
God did not come forward to establish them on the original footing. To do so would not have been morally suitable, either with respect to the position in which the people stood with God, or with regard to a power which He had established among the Gentiles, or with a view to the instruction of His own people in all ages, as to the government of God. This is very just. Things are left, as the hand of God in government had put them. The Gentile is still supreme in the earth; nor does the glory return to Israel. The throne of David is not raised up from the dust, nor is Urim and Thummim given again, nor the ark of the covenant; but the Spirit is not gone from His place of service. He raises up prophets, as in other days when the throne of David was in Jerusalem, and the temple and its priesthood in their glory and beauty.
It would be profitable to mark the way in which these prophets conducted their ministry in reviving the returned captives; but this I do not here. The house, however, is again attended to under their word; the zeal of the people revives; their faith and service live again; and in about four years, from the second year of Darius, when Haggai and Zechariah began, to prophesy, to the sixth, when the house was finished, they work with renewed earnestness.
The dedication of the house then takes place. And this is a beautiful witness of the moral state of the remnant. It is but little they can do—little indeed—but they do it. Solomon had slain 22,000 oxen and 124,000 sheep at the dedication of the first house, while the returned captives can only render a few hundred bullocks and rams and lambs. But they do what they can; and who will say, that the mite of that earlier widow was not more than all the offerings of their richer forefathers? They did what they could, without blushing for their poverty. “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have I give thee.” There is preciousness in such feebleness, something specially acceptable in such sacrifices—when “in a time of affliction, the abundance of joy and deep poverty abound unto the riches of liberality.”
And then they keep their passover; they can do this, and they will do it. The house they can dedicate, and the feast they can keep, and they will; and priests and Levites are alike purified now, as they had not been in the royal time of Hezekiah (2 Chron. 29:3434But the priests were too few, so that they could not flay all the burnt offerings: wherefore their brethren the Levites did help them, till the work was ended, and until the other priests had sanctified themselves: for the Levites were more upright in heart to sanctify themselves than the priests. (2 Chronicles 29:34); and Ezra 6:2020For the priests and the Levites were purified together, all of them were pure, and killed the passover for all the children of the captivity, and for their brethren the priests, and for themselves. (Ezra 6:20)). So that indeed, we may say, though the want of all manifested glory, such as shone in the day of Solomon, may be marked here, Test is there more attractive moral grace and power; just as the exodus from Babylon, some twenty years before, had been marked in contrast with the exodus from Egypt. There are features in the second exodus and in the dedication, features of personal beauty, which had not so appeared in the brighter, far brighter, days of Egypt, and of Solomon.