The Captives Returned to Jerusalem

Ezra 1‑4  •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 7
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 use 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. 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, and 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, 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.
Real Confusion
There is, however, more than this. There is real confusion, and that in abundance, as well as this apparent and 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 were 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 Judea; 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 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.” It reminds me of their fathers in the wilderness, where they knew the Edomite and the Amorite in their different relations to them. 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, reappear among the saints of this day.
Faith’s Recognition
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 harp. Faith still uses the hung on willow trees.
Faith still uses the written things: it affects word in all things; it affects nothing beyond its nothing beyond its measure; while it does what it can according to its measure. It does not cast away what it has because it doesn’t have 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. 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 Romans 14, like Ezra 3, tells us that that which is discordant 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.