537 to 430 B. C. Part 1
As God has promised to discipline his people through the Babylonian exile, so he had also promised to restore them to their homeland after seventy years of captivity according to Jeremiah 29:10. The restoration period was chronicled by Ezra and Nehemiah, and offered the Judeans a unique opportunity to reestablish on lasting spiritual foundations the temple, their worship institutions, and the city of Jerusalem.
The History Of The Restoration
The restoration period covers a hundred years of Judean history from 539 – 422 B.C. There are three major returns that we will cover, with a time of history between the first and the second return.
The First Return
This initial return of the exiled Jews was decreed by Cyrus the Great, who conquered Babylon and founded the largest empire the ancient Near East had yet experienced. In 559 B.C., Cyrus inherited the throne of Anshan, which was a small state near the Persian Gulf. He began at once to unify the people of Persia. He first attacked the weak and corrupt king of the Medes and took their capital city of Ecbatana (Achmetha) in 550 B.C. without a battle. By doing this, he unified the Medes and Persians into one nation. Then he went on to defeat the king of Lydia and capture his capital at Sardis in 546 B.C. The once great Babylonian Empire was now in a very weakened state and was in no condition to resist these combined forces.
According to Herodotus, the 5th Century B.C. Greek historian, Cyrus’ soldiers managed to divert the waters of the Euphrates, which ran through the city of Babylon. The army then entered the city under the wall through the riverbed and captured Babylon without a battle on October 12, 539 B.C. When the great Babylonian Empire fell, the Persians took supreme command of the lands of the ancient Near East.
One of the first official acts of Cyrus after the capture of Babylon was to decree the release of the Jewish exiles. He did this in his “first year”, which was the first full year that he was in power, not the year of his accession to power. Cyrus reversed the oppressive policies of the Israelites’ previous conquerors, and allowed the exiles to return to their homes and reestablish their worship centers. He did this for all the exiles in his realm, not just the Jews alone. Of himself he boasted, “I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been in ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their habitations.”
It was under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, whom Cyrus had appointed governor of the Persian province of Judah, that the first group of Jewish exiles set out for Judah and Jerusalem, probably in the spring of 537 B.C. He soon passed from leadership and was followed by his nephew Zerubbabel. According to the text of Ezra, over 40,000 Judeans participated in this first return.
Its purpose was to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem, at which the cost was to be paid for from the Persian treasury. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they rebuilt the holy altar and laid the foundation of the temple. However, they soon faced stiff opposition from the Samaritans to the north, because they had prohibited them from sharing in the rebuilding project. This great opposition brought the work to a halt, and 16 years passed before the exiles once again began to rebuild the temple there at Jerusalem.
The motivation to begin again came from Haggai and Zechariah, which were two prophets that God had raised up in Judah. Haggai reprimanded the people for neglecting the spiritual priorities while they spent time and money on their own houses. Zechariah declared that genuine repentance was the prerequisite for future blessing. Finally the people responded, and began building in earnest. They had further opposition from the Persian governor Tattenai, but the original command of Cyrus was recognized and confirmed by Darius I. The second Jerusalem temple was completed in 515 B.C., and the event was celebrated by a dedication and the offering of sacrifices. This temple was not as grand as Solomon’s had been, but Haggai encouraged the people by reminding them of God’s promise of future glory and divine blessing on this house of the Lord.
The Book of Esther
Between the first and second returns of the Jews (between Ezra 6 and 7) a series of events occurred in Persia that ultimately resulted in the establishment of the first non-Mosaic Jewish feast. The rule of Persia had by then passed from Darius I to Xerxes I (known in Esther by the name Ahasuerus). The events of the story of Esther take place in the royal city of Susa during a period of 10 years – from the third year of Ahasuerus to the feast of Purim in the 12th year of the king. The purpose of the Book of Esther is both to relate the origin of this feast and encourage the Jews by showing how God delivered and preserved his people in dispersion during the time of the exile.
In 483 B.C. Xerxes I (Ahasuerus) gave a 6 month feast in Susa. According to Herodotus, the historian, he had laid plans for his invasion of Greece. It was during these festivities that Queen Vashti was requested to come before the king’s guests to display her great beauty. Herodotus notes that the whole group was drunk, and Queen Vashti feared for her dignity because she didn’t know what might happen to her. She refused the king’s command, and consequently was deposed as Queen. Her rejection as Queen is what prepared the way for Esther to receive the crown in her stead.
Apparently a period of 3 years separates the events of Esther 1 and 2. During this time, Ahasuerus campaigned against Greece and was defeated at Salamis, where the Persian fleet was lost. When he returned, he set out to find a replacement for Vashti. A “beauty contest” was held, and Esther, the lovely Jewess exile was selected as a candidate. She followed the instructions of Mordecai, her guardian, and kept secret the fact that she was of Jewish descent. When Ahasuerus met Esther, it was love at first sight, and he crowned her queen of Persia.
For four years everything was very peaceful for Esther. Then the plot thickened as Haman came on the scene, for he hated all the Jews. He was a favorite prince in the court of Ahasuerus, and became angered because Mordecai would not bow down to him when he passed by. When he realized that Mordecau was a Jew and would not bow down because of his religious convictions, Haman developed a plan to destroy all the Jews of Persia.
By casting lots, he decided that the most favorable time for their destruction was the 13th day of Adar (March-April), 473 B.C. He offered Ahasuerus financial incentives, and secured a royal edict that allowed for the destruction of all those who “do not keep the king’s laws”. The edict also stated that those people’s property could be seized as well. In this way, all the Jews of Persia, including Queen Esther, were put under a death sentence.
The suspense built among the people as Esther learned of the plot and sought to intervene on behalf of her people. They fasted and prayed before God as to what action to take, and Esther revealed the death plot to the King. Instead of Mordecai being hung on the gallows that Haman had built, he himself was killed by direct order of the King. The Jews however, still stood under the edict of death, for the King could not revoke the order because it had been sealed with his own ring. He issued a new decree that said that the Jews could fight for themselves and that they could also plunder the spoils of their attackers. When the designated day arrived, the Jews were overwhelmingly victorious. Mordecai was elevated to a position of honor and used his authority to institute the feast of Purim that is still celebrated by Jewish people today.
The Second Return
About 15 years after the deliverance of the Jews as recounted in the Book of Esther, a second group of Jews set out for Jerusalem. It was 458 B. C., the seventh year of Artaxerxes. Sixty years had passed since the first group of Jews had returned to what was now the Persian province of ‘Yehud’. The temple had been rebuilt, but worship had been neglected because of a scarcity of Levites in Jerusalem. The temple was also lacking the proper implements for worship and the people were growing ignorant of God’s law.
To deal with this dire situation, God raised up Ezra, a priest and scribe that was skilled in the law of Moses. He led a group of 1500 priests, Levites and temple servants back to Jerusalem. Ezra’s activities were officially authorized by Artaxerxes, who appointed him something of a ‘Secretary of State for Religious Affairs’. The decree of Artaxerxes recognized Ezra’s work, and also provided financial support from the royal treasury.
A distance of 900 miles separated Ezra and his band from Judah. He carried talents and articles of silver and gold that were worth a small fortune. Since there would be many hazards on such a long journey, he apparently considered a military escort to be necessary. He wanted Artaxerxes to know the power of God, though, so he did not request a military escort. Instead, he took three days to pray and commit the journey to God before he would even think of leaving. Four months later, Ezra and his men arrived safely in Jerusalem and delivered the riches and sacred vessels to the temple officials. Then burnt offerings were made by the returned exiles.
After Ezra had been in Jerusalem about 4 months, it was brought to his attention that many of the Jews had taken heathen wives, even thought it was forbidden by Jewish law for them to do so. It was this very practice that years ago had led Solomon into idolatry and resulted in the division of the monarchy. Ezra saw that they had just returned from exile, and were already engaged in activities that could cause divine punishment and expulsion from the land again. It must have taken a lot of courage for him to do what he did. He investigated carefully each of the situations and then prayed about what to do. Then he told the people that their foreign wives and children must leave the land. Even though they did what Ezra asked them to do, the same problem persisted again in the future and Nehemiah had to deal with the same thing. Israel just couldn’t seem to resist the temptation to marry into the heathen races around them.
The Third Return
Nehemiah was the cupbearer of King Artaxerxes I in Susa. It was he that led the third return to Jerusalem for the specific purpose of rebuilding the walls of the ruined city. It was around 446 B.C. when the adversaries of the returned exiles wrote a letter to Artaxerxes, accusing the Jews of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls and warned that they were acting in rebellion to his rule. The decree issued to Ezra in 458 B.C. had allowed a measure of latitude in how any leftover funds could be spent, but Artaxerxes put a stop to the work on the walls until he could thoroughly investigate and issue a specific decree for that purpose.
A year later Nehemiah was in Susa when he heard of the deplorable situation in the Holy City. Some Jewish travelers reported that “the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire”. Nehemiah wept and mourned, fasted and prayed, in response to this terrible news. He then boldly requested of Artaxerxes that he be sent to Jerusalem to rebuilt the walled city. The king complied and issued a decree in the following year that granted Nehemiah a leave of absence and ordained him with the authority to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.
Nehemiah arrived at Jerusalem with officers and horsemen from the king’s army. He quickly inspected the walls and challenged the leaders of Jerusalem with the task before them. Their initial response was positive, and they all mobilized for the task. In spite of fierce opposition from Sanballat, Tobiah, and their wicked associates, the walls were completed after a time with God’s marvelous help.
Nehemiah served 12 years as governor of Jerusalem from 444 B.C. until his return to Artaxerxes in 432 B.C. During this period, Nehemiah and Ezra instructed the people in the law and the Mosaic covenant was recalled and renewed. The cities of Judah were repopulated and the walls of Jerusalem were dedicated to God. When Nehemiah left the city, however, the moral and religious situation there greatly deteriorated. The prophet Malachi was sent by God to rebuke the corruption of the people and priests and call for their repentance. Then Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem and began his second governorship. He initiated the temple, Sabbath, and marriage reforms.
The duration of his second governorship is not known. By 407 B.C., though, the office of governor was held by Bogaos. His name is mentioned in an inscription found at Elephantine, a site in Upper Egypt. Artaxerxes I was succeeded in 424 B.C. by less-talented rulers, and the Persian Empire gradually declined until it was taken over by Alexander of Macedon, who held it from 331 – 323 B.C.
The next text will cover the City of Jerusalem with its location, mountains, valleys, and history.
Below is a picture of the Old City of Jerusalem.