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11. The exiles who returned

11-1 Ezekiel’s Temple: Based Upon Solomon’s Temple || 11-2 The Nature Of Prophecy || 11-2-1 Conditional Prophecy || 11-2-2 Human Response || 11-2-3 Tyre in Ezekiel 26 || 11-2-4 Delayed Prophecies || 11-2-5 Prophecies With Changed Fulfillment || 11-2-6 The Nature Of Prophecy || 11-3 Command More Than Prediction || 11-4 The Contemporary Relevance Of Ezekiel's Temple || 11-5 The Restoration: Potential Kingdom Of God || 11-6 The Potential And The Reality || 11-6-1 The Weakness Of Judah Under Nehemiah || 11-6-2 Isaiah's Prophecies Of Restoration || 11-6-3 Jeremiah's Restoration Prophecies || 11-6-4 Ezekiel's Restoration Prophecies || 11-6-5 The Cherubim And The Restoration || 11-6-6 Zechariah's Restoration Prophecies || 11-6-7 The Restoration Psalms || 11.7 “The prince" in Ezekiel || 11-7-1 " The prince" : Potential Messiah || 11-7-2 Zerubabbel- Potential Messiah? || 11.8 The Potential For The Surrounding World || 11-8-1 Haggai 2 || 11-8-2 Meshech And Tubal || 11-8-3 Joel Chapter 3 || 11-9 Different Sequences Of Prophetic Fulfillment || 11-10 Zechariah And Malachi: More Chances || 11-11 The Returned Exiles

11.10 Hosea, Zechariah And Malachi: More Chances

Hosea And The Restoration

There’s reason to think that many if not all the Old Testament books were re-written during the exile, highlighting their relevance to the Jews in captivity. Hosea’s references to restoration and Gomer / Israel’s “return” to Him (e.g. Hos. 6:11) indicate that the ‘return’ God had in mind was the return of Judah from captivity to Him and to His land. Hosea’s failed marriage with the unfaithful Gomer spoke of God’s terribly painful and tragic relationship with Israel. But like God, Hosea lived in hope of restoration. He fantasized about the day when he would re-live his romance with Gomer, they would again wander together in love in the wilderness, they would re-marry with a new covenant, the joy of which would be so great that the birds and trees joined in with them, and he would re-name the children born during their first marriage. Time and again he wished that Gomer would go back to how things were with them at the beginning; and he tried to engineer things so that she would wish to return there too (Hos. 2:9). All this reflected the fantasy of God for Israel’s return to Him, for a restoration of things (Is. 1:26; Jer. 33:7,11). And yet both Gomer and Israel were unfaithful from the beginning; and yet as Hosea decided to view their early romance positively, so God decided to view Israel in the wilderness through the lens of His amazing grace.

As the whole creation would share the joy of Hosea and Gomer’s remarriage, so Is. 44:23 and Is. 49:13 use similar terms to describe how all creation could have rejoiced in the reuniting of Yahweh with His people on their return from Babylon. As God longed to pronounce the words “You are my people” to them (Hos. 2:25), so Is. 51:16 speaks of how at the restoration God wished to use that very phrase to returned Judah. Hosea / God speak in the most shocking terms- “I will sow her… in the land” (Hos. 2:25). This means, bluntly, they would have sex, in the land of God. But the Jews in Babylon just plain weren’t interested in returning to the land. They preferred to remain there where they were, and ‘worship’ God, criticizing others for their apostasy, but not really come back to Him with any passion. God wished that once again He would be with them in the wilderness as He was at the beginning of their national relationship, and then enter a new covenant with them, the joy of which would result in the physical transformation of the planet. It appears from Hos. 3:1 that Hosea tried to force through the realization of this fantasy by ‘redeeming’ Gomer. He dreamt of romancing Gomer again and remarrying her, and it seems he did actually redeem her a second time for marriage. The parallel of this in God’s relationship with His people would’ve been His ‘forcing through’ of His fantasy for them at the time of the return from Babylon. He forgave them without their repentance, and desperately urged them through Isaiah to return to the land, rebuild the temple according to the specifications of Ezekiel, and enter a new covenant with Him. God phrases the prophecies /  commands / desire for that return from Babylon in language which is shot through with reference to the exodus from Egypt. In other words, like Hosea, Yahweh wanted to repeat the wilderness romance with which He had started His relationship with them. He wanted to again provide water in the desert (Is. 41:18); He wanted their return from Babylon across the desert to be like their exodus from Egypt and passage through the desert to the land. Hosea talks of starting a relationship again with his wife, a re-marriage; Ez. 37 expresses this same reality in another figure in speaking of how Israel would be resurrected, and this new person would return to Zion. Is. 41:19 speaks of how God would even line their route from Babylon to Zion with trees. In the wilderness, the place where God told Moses that Israel were not His people, there God intended to again tell them that they were His people (Hos. 2:1); God’s judgment against His people involved taking them into the wilderness and slaying them with thirst (Hos. 2:5); and yet there, through that judgment, they would again become His people. God’s plan therefore was to bring Judah out of Babylon / Persia, and reveal Himself to them as their God on their wilderness journey home, and then return together with joy to Zion.

The grace shown by God to His people, reflected in Hosea’s grace toward Gomer, was especially shown to the exiled Jews in Babylon. By grace, Hosea and God granted forgiveness to their women in order to lead them to repentance (Hos. 2:16; 7:1). Hosea wanted to call Gomer and her children “my people”, and to give them grain and all the good things that went with a marriage relationship (Hos. 2:24). But this is the very language of Ez. 36:24-31 about God’s intentions for the restoration from Babylon- the people would be cleansed, called “my people”, given grain and all God’s blessings- in the hope that then they would repent and loathe their immorality and unfaithfulness. Such is God’s grace that His acceptance leads to repentance, rather than repentance being a condition of His grace and acceptance. Hosea’s attitude to Gomer says it all.

A Redemption Refused

As Hosea ‘redeemed’ Gomer in His attempt to force through His fantasy for her (Hos. 3:1), so Yahweh is repeatedly described in Isaiah as Israel’s go’el , redeemer (Is. 41:14; Is. 43:14; Is. 44:6,24; Is. 47:4; Is. 48:17; Is. 49:7,26; Is. 54:5,8). The redeemer could redeem a close relative from slavery or repurchase property lost during hard times (Lev. 25:25,26, 47-55; Ruth 2:20; Ruth 3:9,12). The redeemer was also the avenger of blood (Num. 35:9-28; Josh. 20:3,9). All these ideas were relevant to Yahweh’s relationship to Judah in captivity. But the promised freedom didn’t come- even under Nehemiah, Judah was still a province within the Persian empire. And those who returned complained: “We are slaves this day in the land you gave…” (Neh. 9:36). The wonderful prophecies of freedom and redemption from slavery weren’t realized in practice, because of the selfishness of the more wealthy Jews. And how often is it that the freedom potentially enabled for those redeemed in Christ is in practice denied them by their autocratic and abusive brethren? And yet God was simply so positive about His people- Is. 51:14 appears to be a descriptive statement about the Jews, but in reality it wasn’t true: “The bound down one hastens to be loosed”. Sadly, they didn’t respond to the exhortation to loose themselves from the bands upon them (Is. 52:2). They preferred to stay in bondage, as so many do today.

Tragically, neither Yahweh’s nor Hosea’s fantasy for their woman worked out. In God’s case, it was rescheduled and reappropriated. Rev. 13 shows that it is us as the new woman of God who must leave Babylon in the last days. This is where all this becomes so bitingly relevant for us.

Zechariah And Malachi

We have observed that Is. 53:2 speaks of Messiah, in a restoration context beginning in Is. 52, as ‘growing up’, the same word used to describe the ‘coming up’ from the dry ground of Babylon. This potential Messiah was Zerubbabel, but one wonders whether when he failed to fulfil the prophecies, there was the possibility that another man could have fulfilled his role. Nehemiah ‘came up’ from Babylon, and was “the servant” who ‘prospered’ Yahweh’s work (Neh. 1:11; 2:20), just as the servant prophecies required (Is. 53:10; 48:15); and he was thereby the redeemer of his brethren (Neh. 5:8). He encouraged the singing of praise on the walls of Zion (Neh. 9:5; 12:46), surely in a conscious effort to fulfil the words of Is. 60:18- that Zion’s gates in Messiah’s Kingdom would be praise. He was “despised” as Messiah would be (Neh. 2:19; Is. 53:3 s.w.). He entered Jerusalem on a donkey, as Messiah would (Neh. 2:12 cp. Zech. 9:9); and Neh. 2:16 sounds very much like “of the people there was none with me” (Is. 63:3). The Gentiles round about came to sit at Nehemiah’s table to eat and drink (Neh. 5:17), just as Isaiah had prophesied could happen on a grander scale at the restoration of the Kingdom. One wonders if the potential fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies was transferred to  him? And yet Nehemiah returned to Babylon at least once, and there is no record that on his second visit he stayed on, but rather, the implication seems to be, he returned again to the service of Babylon. The total lack of Biblical information about his later life may reflect this disappointing decision. This train of thought enables us to appreciate the joy and pleasure which the Father had when finally His beloved Son lived up to all that He sought and expected.  

Even within some of the above prophecies, especially the hopeful, exuberant Isaianic prophecies of a successful restoration, there are hints that God foresaw that all would not be that rosy. Is. 63:18 even seems to have foreseen that the restoration would be interrupted by Gentiles again possessing Zion- just as happened before Nehemiah’s coming from Babylon: “The people of thy holiness have possessed it but a little while: our adversaries have trodden down thy sanctuary”. And Is. 66:1-5 seems to anticipate that the actual rebuilding of the temple would be nullified by an incorrect attitude to the sacrifices, and more important would it be that Judah trembled at God’s word: “Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest? For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the LORD: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word. He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he cut off a dog's neck; he that offereth an oblation, as if he offered swine's blood; he that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol [cp. Malachi’s criticisms of restored Judah’s attitude to the sacrifices]. Yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations. I also will choose their delusions, and will bring their fears upon them; because when I called, none did answer; when I spake, they did not hear: but they did evil before mine eyes, and chose that in which I delighted not. Hear the word of the LORD, ye that tremble at his word; Your brethren that hated you, that cast you out for my name's sake, said, Let the LORD be glorified: but he shall appear to your joy, and they shall be ashamed”. The double reference to trembling at Yahweh’s word is a definite prediction of the situation in Ezra 9:4; 10:3, where the same rare Hebrew word is used regarding how those of the exiles who repented for their marriage out of the Faith trembled before the word in repentance. Then, at that point, the Kingdom blessings could have been brought about, as described in the rest of Is. 66. But again, there was no staying power in their repentance. By Nehemiah’s time, and by Malachi’s time even after his, marriage out of the Faith was still their weakness.  

Is. 49:4-6 seems to foresee how the returnees would be discouraged in their work of rebuilding, and at the fact that not all God’s people had been gathered back. And yet even then, provided they had the right spirit, the Kingdom blessings could still come: “Then I said, I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with the LORD, and my work with my God. And now, saith the LORD... Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the LORD, and my God shall be my strength... I will also give thee [the servant, redeemed Israel] for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth”. Isaiah 49 goes on to comfort the servant that the remainder of Israel would be regathered, and that the broken down walls of Zion were continually before Yahweh (Is. 49:16). This is exactly relevant to the situation in Judah after the first break in the rebuilding; the walls were broken down by the Samaritans, but Nehemiah was raised up to lead more back with him from Babylon and rebuild them. And yet sadly, this too failed, for Judah were still unwilling to completely forsake Babylon. “Thy walls are continually before me [even during the 70 years captivity]…[even while in captivity they were thinking that Yahweh had forgotten them, v. 14]…thy builders (RVmg.) make haste…thy land that hath been destroyed [by the Babylonian scorched earth policy] shall even now be too narrow by reason of the inhabitants…then shalt thou say, Who hath begotten me these, seeing I am barren, an exile…?” (Is. 49:16,19,21 RV). This all implies there would be a population explosion at the time of the restoration. But there is no evidence this was the case. All this was potentially true; but it didn’t come to pass in reality.  

Is. 51:3-11 is clearly in a restoration context: “For the LORD shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places...Hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law; fear ye not the reproach of men [s.w. Neh. 1:3; 2:17; 4:4; 5:9 re. the reproach of the Gentiles against the partially rebuilt Jerusalem], neither be ye afraid of their revilings. For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool: but my righteousness shall be for ever, and my salvation from generation to generation. Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in the ancient days... Therefore the redeemed of the LORD shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away”. This passage seems to have foreseen the lagging of spirit in Zerubbabel and the builders, and the need to encourage them that a second group of exiles ought to have come with Nehemiah with great joy. A few came, but this yet further opportunity was again not realized by the returnees. Isaiah had repeatedly prophesied that Judah would come with joy to Zion, and would continue there with an everlasting joy. But the records give little indication that they were joyful; Neh. 8:9,10 shows Nehemiah encouraging them to be joyful, because “the joy of the Lord is your strength”. They didn’t want to have all joy and peace through believing; and so the Kingdom of joy didn’t come. They didn’t live the Kingdom life of joy, and so they didn’t possess or experience the Kingdom. The lowness of their petty concerns deprived them of it. 

“If thou draw out thy soul to the hungry…thou shalt raise up the foundations…thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach…if thou turn away thy foot from…doing thy pleasure on my holy day” (Is. 58:10,12,13) all shows that the rebuilding of Jerusalem was conditional upon Judah’s spirituality. They didn’t keep the Sabbath; they abused their poor brethren; and therefore their rebuilding of Zion was merely an outward appearance of fulfilling the prophecies.   

Zechariah and Malachi repeatedly criticise the shepherd-priests of Judah for not leading the people as they should have done, and thereby enabled the restoration. Zech 10:3 implies that because Yahweh had visited His people and (potentially) made them capable of establishing His Kingdom, therefore the priests were at fault for not enabling Judah’s spiritual revival: “Mine anger was kindled against the shepherds, and I punished the goats: for the LORD of hosts hath visited his flock the house of Judah, and hath made them as his goodly horse in the battle”. Zech 13:7-9, in the context of preceding chapters speaking of how the shepherds of Israel had so failed to play their potential part in God’s purpose of restoring His people, prophesies: “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the LORD of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones. And it shall come to pass, that in all the land, saith the LORD, two parts therein shall be cut off and die; but the third shall be left therein. And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The LORD is my God”. This could well be speaking of how God cut off men like Zerubbabel who were poor shepherds, although potential Messiahs; and it could have then happened that during the ‘cutting off’ of Jewish population during the Antiochus invasions, a minority could have repented and ushered in the true restoration. But this didn’t happen, and so the prophecy had a deferred fulfilment, although humanly speaking somewhat out of context, in the cutting off of the good shepherd, the scattering of the disciples, and their spiritual refining. 

Finally Malachi offered Judah their last chance. The willingness of Yahweh to work with His people and bring about His Kingdom with them is really amazing. They had failed to live the Kingdom life for well over 100 years since Ezra first returned from Babylon. All sorts of potential Kingdom opportunities had slipped through their fingers. Finally Malachi appealed for their repentance, for them to pay the tithes, and then their land would be “delightsome” and all nations would call them blessed (Mal. 3:10-12); Messiah would come and purge a corrupt priesthood, so that “then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old” (Mal. 3:1-4). But only a remnant “hearkened and heard” (Mal. 3:16), their future salvation was guaranteed, but “the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven” to judge the heedless majority. He had offered them the Gospel of His Kingdom, had manoeuvred and manipulated the greatest nations of the day to enable them to take up the offer, affecting the lives of millions of people throughout the Middle East...but they were more worried about their little farm and storing up their crops for themselves, too mean spirited to look out of themselves, too self-satisfied with their own religion, too sure of their own righteousness. Instead of subduing the nations around them with the victory of Israel’s God, they brought their own brethren into subjection unto them, that they might gain out of them (Zech. 9:15 s.w. Neh. 5:5). It could’ve been the Kingdom, Israel could have become the joy of the whole earth and her people a joy. But instead, they were obsessed with their petty, miserable little kingdoms, and the next few centuries had nothing of the joy which Isaiah had repeatedly prophesied as being possible for them. And so with Malachi, the sun went down over the prophets, and the Father’s appeal to His wayward sons came to an end, until the coming of His Son. 

Out of all this comes a powerful lesson. We put God to endless pain and labour in order to fulfil His wish to save men, if we don’t fulfil what in prospect we could fulfil. In the context of the restoration, Yahweh truly said that “ shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isa 55:11). His word will have fulfilment in the end, but it can have its fulfilment in us, here and now. Nehemiah twice stated that Yahweh was prospering him in his work of restoring Zion [Neh. 1:11; 2:20 s.w.]; but generally, the word of prophecy was deferred in its fulfilment. Let’s not be satisficers as Israel were, minimalists happy so long as we have our bit of land to live on, our cieled roof to dwell under...and neglect His house. Let’s be aware that God will confirm us in the way we chose to take. Ezra 4 says that the reason the temple was not further rebuilt was because of the decree of Artaxerxes suspending the building programme; then Haggai came and told Israel that the temple wasn’t built because they had preferred to build their ceiled houses (Ezra 5:1). So God had confirmed the people in the way they chose. They preferred to build their houses rather than His, so He stoped them from building His house altogether until they wholeheartedly recommitted themselves to Him. Throughout this period of their history, Israel knew what they ought to do, and they knew very well their weaknesses. They should all have returned from Babylon; but many remained, although they gave those who returned material support. Far more of them should have lived in Jerusalem, but they didn’t- lots had to be drawn to get enough people to live there. And yet the people blessed those who willingly offered to live there (Neh. 11:2).They rejoiced with joy in Nehemiah chapter 8 that they were forgiven, but in chapter 9 they were back to realising that they had seriously sinned in other ways; in chapter 12 they dedicated the wall, but this gets overshadowed in chapter 13 by the realisation that again they had mixed with the surrounding nations. Several times they entered into solemn covenants not to marry Gentiles, and soberly recounted the miserable history of their failures, how as a people they had sinned, repented, and done the very same again. But then they simply lived out that cycle themselves, having just lamented it. They divorced their Gentile wives, and then took more (in the times of Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi). They vowed not to forsake the house of their God, and yet Nehemiah concludes with the record that this is exactly what they did (Neh. 10:39; 13:11). They were slack paying the tithes, then they paid them, they slacked again, then they paid them- several times this cycle is recorded. Likewise the withholding of agricultural blessing occurred several times- in Neh. 5:2,3 (as prophesied in Is. 51:19), in Haggai’s time, and later in Malachi 3:10,12; when the restored Zion could have been as the garden of Eden, i.e. paradise restored on earth (Is. 51:3). Here we see frightening similarities with ourselves. We know, but often don’t do. We sense this cycle of failure, crying out for mercy, receiving it, failing again, crying for mercy, receiving it, failing again...we see it in Israel, in our brethren and those around us, and in ourselves. We can expound it, lament it, feel the shame and tragedy of it all...and yet continue to have a part in it. Eventually, the people stayed in this groove so long that they degenerated into how they were at the time of Malachi- self-righteous, with no sense of failure any more, living self-centred lives of petty materialism, earning wages as they did in Haggai’s time, to put into pockets with holes in, life without satisfaction, achieving nothing, passively angry. This is what Malachi clearly portrays. It’s a terrible picture, and one which we can sail dangerously close to identifying with.