Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Return To The Promised Land

Posted by foryourfaith on May 24, 2011


With the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC and the deportation of its people to Babylon, the dynasty of David and the nation of Judah came to an end. However, many of the exiles in Babylon never gave up hope that one day they would return to the land Yahweh had given them, to restore the kingdom and the Davidic dynasty – a hope that was encouraged by the prophetic conviction of a new day for the people of Yahweh.

But when would this new Jerusalem be a reality? The prophet Jeremiah had predicted that the exile would last 70 years – which was commonly regarded as a full life span and conformed to his belief that few if anyone then alive would survive until the return. The actual period from the destruction of Jerusalem until the edict of Cyrus permitting the return was just under 50 years. The Babylonian empire collapsed rapidly under pressure from the Persians and their triumphant king, Cyrus the Great.

Coincident with the rise of Cyrus as world conqueror were the oracles and proclamations of the anonymous prophet of the Exile, whose words are part of the book of Isaiah and who is often called Second Isaiah. His message to the people was one of hope and encouragement, of renewal and restoration. Yahweh was now prepared to bring them back across the wilderness to the Holy Land as he had done long years before in the days of Moses and the Exodus. Yahweh’s instrument in this plan was to be Cyrus, his “shepherd” and “anointed.” The return would represent a new age, with the bonding of the people to Yahweh based on a renewal of the ancient covenant made through Moses on Mount Sinai.

The initial hopes came to fruition in 539 BC, when Cyrus made a triumphant entry into Babylon. The following year, in line with his policy toward other nations, the new king issued a decree that allowed the exiles to return to Palestine, rebuild the Temple, and restore their religion.

Little is known of the initial phase of the return, except that the rebuilding of the Temple was begun in an atmosphere of excitement. However, there was intense opposition to this project from the Samaritans and others. They considered the establishment of a new Judah as a threat to the political stability of the region and were angry when their offer to help rebuild the Temple was rejected, probably on the grounds that they were not authentic Israelites but a mixed group. Due to their opposition, work on the temple stopped until the second year of Darius.

When the prophets Haggai and Zechariah chastised the new community for its failure to finish the temple, a renewed effort was undertaken by Zerubbabel, who was in the direct line from David, and was probably the nephew of Sheshbazzar, the governor of Judah. Opposition was overcome when a search produced a copy of the decree of Cyrus. The rebuilding of the second Temple was resumed – and completed in 515 BC (Ezra 6:13-15).

While some, unwilling to forsake their new homes and occupations, had stayed on in Babylon, others returned, hoping for a renewal of the glorious days of David. The governor, Zerubbabel, was called the “signet ring” of Yahweh and the “Branch” – terms suggesting the dynastic promise embodied in a number of prophetic utterances.

The historical reality, however, did not entirely fulfill these hopes and expectations. The province of Judah was administered by Joshua, a high priest of the house of Zadok, and by Zerubbabel, the new governor, who was of Davidic descent. He reported to the Persian regional governor, or satrap, and through him to the king. Although Zerubbabel served as governor of the province of Judah, he never became king. Any connection of the governorship with the House of David had evidently ended by the time Nehemiah, a man with no royal claims or pretensions, took the post in 445 BC. There was little room for even a puppet king in the Persian scheme of administering rule by satrap, so the hopes for the reestablishment of the monarchy were dashed.

The covenant with Yahweh assumed central importance instead. When Ezra, a priest and scribe of Yahweh, led another wave of exiles to Jerusalem, he brought with him a copy of the book of the law of Moses. This he presented to the people as the basis of their faith and daily lives. Thus the Jews’ focus changed from the House of David to Yahweh’s covenant, received by Moses on Mount Sinai, and expressed in the laws of the Pentateuch. This is how the Jews in the province of Judah would live, retain their identity, and serve their God.


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