In the fourth year of King Jehoiakim, the prophet Jeremiah announced that the Babylonian empire would soon overtake Judah, removing the people from the land for seventy years (Jeremiah 25). After Nebuchadnezzar’s first raid on Judah (2 Chron 36:9-10), Jeremiah sent a letter of encouragement to the exiles, affirming his prophecy of a seventy-year captivity followed by a return to the land (Jer 29:4-28).
Jeremiah’s prophesy of the conclusion of the Babylonian captivity was noteworthy for Ezra (Ezra 1:1-4). But King Cyrus of Persia may have had his own agenda in allowing the people to return. Having just conquered the Babylonian empire, Cyrus granted the Hebrews favor in hope of gaining their loyalty. God used this prudent politician to display His sovereignty and mercy over His people and the nations.
Ezra and Nehemiah described the origins of the post-exilic religious and political reforms of Judah. Ezra arrived in Jerusalem several years before Nehemiah and they shared a common worldview with the Chronicler. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah were also active during this time of restoration, each exhorting the returned exiles to be faithful with the opportunity God had given them.
Ezra recorded that the people got right to work on the temple (Ezra 1:5-11). In what must have seemed a miraculous turn of affairs, all who returned were actually funded not only by their family members remaining in Babylon, but also by the Persian king. Cyrus even “brought out the articles of the LORD’s house that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:7) so that they could be taken back to the city of David. Zerubbabel led a company of Israelite men (Ezra 2:3-39), Levites (Ezra 2:40), singers (Ezra 2:41), those who would be gatekeepers (Ezra 2:42), temple servants (Ezra 2:43-58), and even those who wished to serve at the temple but were prohibited because their ancestry could not be documented (Ezra 2:59-63). Ezra 2 concludes with a placid scene: “The priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, temple servants, and some of the people settled in their towns, and the rest of Israel settled in their towns” (Ezra 2:70).
The peace would not last. The initial paragraph of Ezra 3 introduces the dramatic motif that would carry through Ezra and into Nehemiah. The non-Hebrew inhabitants of the land opposed the returned exiles’ efforts to build the temple. Despite this threat, the Hebrews “set up the altar on its foundation and offered burnt offerings for the morning and evening” (Ezra 3:3). Beyond this, they celebrated the Feast of Booths (Ezra 3:4; Lev 23:33-43), appointed all Levites twenty years and older to supervise the construction (Ezra 3:8-9), and sang a familiar anthem of praise to the Lord: “For He is good; His faithful love to Israel endures forever” (Ezra 3:11; 2 Chron 5:13; 7:3).
Despite the joy of the occasion, “many of the older priests, Levites, and family leaders, who had seen the first temple, wept loudly when they saw the foundation of this house” (Ezra 3:12; Hag 2:1-5). Why? Because it was of common stature in comparison with Solomon’s great edifice; their God was great, and in their minds, this temple did not do Him justice (2 Chron 2:4-6). Ezra captured the jumbled emotions saying, “The people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shouting from that of the weeping, because the people were shouting so loudly” (Ezra 3:13).
On the whole, Ezra portrayed the people as more excited than discouraged; hope was in the air. The New Testament authors looked back at the returned exiles’ hope as if it were none. Despite the fact that the temple had been rebuilt and the sacrifices could continue, those who returned yet lived in the days of shadow, before the substance, that is, the Messiah, had come (Col 2:17). Concerning the effectiveness of Christ’s unique self-sacrifice in redemptive history, the author of Hebrews wrote, “Now every priest stands day after day ministering the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this man, after offering one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb 10:11-12).