The Return from Exile
When prophet Jeremiah announced that the people of Judah would be taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar and exiled to Babylon, he also announced that the exile would last for a period of 70 years (Jeremiah 25:8-12). Quite remarkably, in 538BC King Cyrus of Babylon decreed that the people of Jerusalem could return and rebuild their temple— and even provided for some of the building materials required as well as some of the articles of the temple originally taken by Nebuchadnezzar!
Ezra and Nehemiah lead a partial reconstruction of the temple, but Jerusalem is not the same as before. The temple is a disappointment, the line of kings is powerless, and the land remains largely dry and barren. It does not resemble the blessed land promised to Abraham nor the high expectations of the prophets who announced the return. The reader begins to wonder whether the promises of God are somehow ‘on hold’ or delayed.
This tension is increased as opposition to the rebuilding and restoration of Jerusalem comes from many sides— from local officials appointed by the Babylonians, from the descendants of the Jews who had avoided capture, and even from within the returning exiles.
The people of God were in need of a new exodus, a new king and a new prophet like Elijah. However their experience of Exile and Return has exposed a deeper need: God’s people are spiritually dead and in need of a new life. They need more than a new exodus; Israel needs something as big as a new creation. Israel’s prophets see this as they look back on their story, and they begin to talk about their hope in these terms.
In this period of Return from Exile the tension between the promises of God through his prophets and the historical reality of life Post-exilic Jerusalem becomes extreme.
And then, there is silence from God. After the prophet Malachi— perhaps as late as 420bc— it seemed there was no sure word from God. Only waiting.
One of the challenges for anyone reading the bible is to connect the biblical history– reflected in the writings of the prophets and scholars– with the widely known history of the world embedded in classical primary sources, histories and archaeological discoveries. This period from the exile onwards, the biblical narrative is firmly embedded in the sequential rise and fall of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman empires familiar to all historians. Many resources are available but here is a link to simple chronology of events relevant to the bible readings which follow.
Prayerful Expectation: Daniel 9:1-24
In the earlier chapters of the book bearing his name, we have been introduced to Daniel as a man of prayer. In this passage we get a in window into his life of prayer.
Following this prayer, the book of Daniel features a series of visions which relate to the times leading up to the coming of God’s promised Messiah.
- As you read Daniel’s prayer, can you identify particular sections or movements?
- What do you think the prayer reveals about Daniel?
- What might your prayers reveal about you?
- What might you learn from Daniel’s prayer?
Comfort my people: Isaiah 40
This chapter marks a significant turning point in the book of Isaiah. After 39 gruelling chapters of judgment and despair (with only an occasional glimpse of hope!), the tide turns
As Israel waits in exile, in desperation, God offers comfort. Their sin has been paid for and God is on his way to rescue them. The surrounding nations and their gods cannot stand in his way, for he is the creator of everything, the Lord of the nations.
- Pick five words which best describe God as he is presented in this passage.
- What impact might this vision of God have had upon the Exiles struggling in Babylon?
- How might this vision of God respond to Israel’s greatest need?
The valley of dry bones: Ezekiel 37
Ezekiel‘s vision is a dramatic image of what God is going to do with his people. Out of the death of sin and exile, God‘s Spirit will fill Israel and resurrect them to new life. There is an echo of Genesis here, but the hope is now at a national level. Israel is to be resurrected as a new humanity.
Ezekiel’s vision is full of vivid images and symbolic representations— although a careful reading of the chapter supplies most of the interpretive keys.
- This vision creates great expectations for the Jewish Exiles in Babylon. Try to list the specific expectations that this vision might engender?
- How does Ezekiel‘s vision respond to the story of Israel?
The return of the remnant: Ezra 1-3
The return to Jerusalem is a fascinating chapter in the story of the Bible. It begins with the surprise proclamation of a Gentile king, Cyrus. Once home, Israel begins to rebuild the temple. But as the work comes to completion and they thank God for his faithfulness, some of the older Israelites who had seen the first temple in its glory weep at the disappointing sight of the second temple.
What do you think the author is trying to tell us about Israel‘s return from exile?
Shedding light on the scene
The prophesied return from exile: Jeremiah 32
Even as the Babylonian army lays siege to Jerusalem, God commands Jeremiah to go and buy a field. The act is symbolic: God promises that although they will be taken away as slaves, one day Israel will return and land will again be bought and sold by the Israelites in Jerusalem.
In the midst of despair, God speaks hope. What picture does the author present of Israel’s restoration?
The command to rebuild the temple: Haggai 1-2
After returning from exile, the people begin to rebuild Jerusalem and the altar. But the temple itself remains in ruins. Haggai calls the people to honour God by re-building the temple as a first step towards the healing of the land. The book of Haggai is partly a word of comfort to the Jews, reminding them that God is still present with them. But it is also a warning to not continue the sins of the past.
What themes from earlier part of the story do you find repeated in Haggai?
The people repent and seal the covenant: Nehemiah 9-10.
Just as they have done before, the people of God gather to repent; to start afresh and renew the covenant they have with God. As part of the covenant renewal ceremony, the history of God’s people is retold for the benefit of the people.
What do you notice about the way the Levites retell the story? What might be the significance of this?
Israel complains, again: Malachi 1-2.
The Israelites are back in their land, but the book of Malachi is a warning that they may not have learned from the exile: the old ways of life are starting to repeat.
What are God’s complaints against Israel? What do they reveal about his desire for them?
Looking forward and backward
After the destruction of Jerusalem, the people of God were left with a huge question: how would God fulfil his purpose to Abraham, and redeem creation?
As you read these passages, in your journal, outline what Israel thought the return from exile would look like. In the years before Jesus birth, what were they waiting for?
The coming Messiah: Isaiah 9:1-7
Leading up to the exile, king after king led Israel astray. After the exile they long for a new king to lead them faithfully, that they might be the people of God– the people God intended them to be. Looking far beyond the exile, Isaiah sees God’s provision of the perfect king.
The new covenant: Jeremiah 31; Isaiah 55: 1-7
Israel has always struggled to keep their covenant with God. After the exile, the prophets look ahead to a new covenant, available not just to Israel but the whole world.
God returns: Malachi 3-4
In Israel’s rebellion, God‘s presence departed from the temple. After the exile he did not return to the rebuilt temple. Malachi is written to the remnant Israelites who have returned to Jerusalem promising them God will come again.
God‘s Holy Spirit is poured out: Joel 2
In the past, God spirit anointed only kings and prophets. Joel sees a day coming when all of the people of God will be filled with his Spirit.
New Creation: Isaiah 65:17-25
For Isaiah it is not enough that God will restore Israel; all of creation needs to be freed from exile and made new.
Read the Whole Bible
|Jul. 1: Ezra 1-3|
Jul. 2: Ezra 4-6
Jul. 3: Ezra 7-9
Jul. 4: Ezra 10; Neh. 1-2
Jul. 5: Neh. 3-5
Jul. 6: Neh. 6-8
Jul. 7: Neh. 9-11
Jul. 8: Neh. 12-13; Hosea 1
Jul. 9: Hosea 2-4
Jul. 10: Hosea 5-7
Jul. 11: Hosea 8-10
Jul. 12: Hosea 11-13
Jul. 13: Hosea 14; Joel 1-2
Jul. 14: Joel 3; Amos 1-2
Jul. 15: Amos 3-5
|Jul. 16: Amos 6-8|
Jul. 17: Amos 9; Obad. 1-2
Jul. 18: Jonah 1-4
Jul. 19: Micah 1-3
Jul. 20: Micah 4-6
Jul. 21: Micah 7; Nahum 1-2
Jul. 22: Nahum 3; Hab. 1-2
Jul. 23: Hab. 3; Zeph. 1-2
Jul. 24: Zeph. 3; Hag. 1-2
Jul. 25: Zech. 1-3
Jul. 26: Zech. 4-6
Jul. 27: Zech. 7-8
Jul. 28: Zech. 9-11
Jul. 29: Zech. 12-13
Jul. 30: Zech. 14; Mal. 1-2
Jul. 31: Mal. 3-4