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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

11-6-3 Jeremiah's Restoration Prophecies

Jeremiah’s restoration passages likewise. They are summarized in Jer. 12:15-17, where God describes His conditional dealings with the surrounding Gentile nations in language reminiscent of that He uses about His own people : “After that I have plucked them out  I will return, and will bring them again [to Judah] every man to his heritage…and it [i.e., this] shall come to pass, if they will diligently learn the ways of my people, to swear by my name…then shall they be built in the midst of my people. But if they will not obey, I will utterly pluck up and destroy that nation”. The if…then construction is clearly conditional: the Gentiles could have come and dwelt in the land in a Kingdom-like situation, if Judah had taught them, and if they had responded.  

“After seventy years be accomplished at Babylon...then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all you heart. And I will be found of you...and I will turn away your captivity” (Jer. 29:10-14). The LXX suggests that the praying and seeking was perhaps a condition of fulfilment: “And do ye pray to me, and I will hearken...and do ye earnestly seek me, and ye shall find me”.

But the next verses go on to say that because they had false prophets in Babylon, the wrath of God was against them all, and even those in the land would suffer because of them. And further (29:23-26), they committed adultery and vied for leadership amongst themselves. Judah did return, but evidently they didn’t seek Yahweh with all their hearts beforehand. And thus they were not fully found of Him, and He did not therefore fully turn away their captivity. Indeed, by chosing to remain in Babylon, they themselves disallowed this turning away of their captivity. God gave Judah in captivity “hope in your latter end” (Jer, 29:11 RV)- a hope of restoration at the end of the 70 years. Yet they preferred the Babylon life, and rejected this hope. “Ye shall seek me…and I will be found of you” (Jer. 29:14) then becomes a conditional statement- then, if they sought the Lord, they would have been found of Him.

Jer. 30:10: “Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob, saith the LORD; neither be dismayed, O Israel: for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and shall be in rest, and be quiet, and none shall make him afraid”. Isaiah’s restoration prophecies contained not only many clear commands to not fear at the time of the restoration (Isaiah 41:10,13,14; 43:1,5; 44:2,8; 51:7; 54:4), but also a clear statement that if they were truly the re-established Kingdom, they would not fear: “Thou afflicted, tossed with tempest [s.w. Zechariah 7:14 re. how Judah was ‘tossed around’ by the 70 years captivity] I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and lay thy foundations with sapphires...and all thy borders of pleasant stones. And all thy children shall be taught of the LORD; and great shall be the peace of thy children. In righteousness shalt thou be established: thou shalt be far from oppression; for thou shalt not fear: and from terror; for it shall not come near thee...and all thy children shall be taught of the LORD” (Isaiah 54:11-14).

The adversaries to the rebuilding did make the returned exiles afraid: “For they all made us afraid, saying, Their hands shall be weakened from the work, that it be not done. Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands” (Nehemiah 6:9).  Likewise Ezra 3:3: “And they set the altar upon his bases; for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries”. Nehemiah exhorted the people not to be afraid perhaps on the basis of Jeremiah’s words (Nehemiah 4:14). Their fear and problem-oriented view of life stopped the Kingdom bursting forth into their experience. That fear was rooted in an obsessive self-interest that eclipsed a true faith in that which is greater and larger than us as individuals. And so it can be with us. The “stones” were laid (Nehemiah 4:2 s.w.), but not with colours, as could have been. And neither were the foundation stones gemstones, as could have been. And their children were not taught of Yahweh, because the priests were lazy to do so (Mal. 2).

Jer 31:4-9: “Again I will build thee, and thou shalt be built, O virgin of Israel: thou shalt again be adorned with thy tabrets, and shalt go forth in the dances of them that make merry.

Thou shalt yet plant vines upon the mountains of Samaria: the planters shall plant, and shall eat them as common things...

Behold, I will bring them from the north country [Babylon], and gather them from the coasts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together: a great company shall return thither...

They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble”. Likewise Isaiah 63:13 reminded the returnees that when they had been led through the wilderness to Canaan under Moses, they did not stumble [s.w.].

But Judah easily gave up the work of building; they had to be constantly coaxed to get on with it by Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Zechariah. They were, however, effectively declining to allow themselves to be built up into God’s Kingdom, because they were too worried about building their own houses than God’s. And so insofar as we too decline the spiritual upbuilding which there is available in God’s word, so we decline a part in God’s work of building a house for His Name.

They did this, but became so obsessed with treading out the grapes that they did it even on the Sabbath, and thereby disallowed the fulfilment of the Kingdom  prophecies which were dependent upon them keeping the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15; Isaiah 58:13).

“A great company” didn’t return- only 50,000 or so, according to the records in Ezra and Nehemiah. The majority chose to stay in comfortable Babylon.

But both Ezra and Nehemiah wanted to have a Babylonian military escort on the journey back; they weren’t sure that they would be given “a straight way” with Yahweh’s protection. Neh 4:10 records that “Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed [s.w. “stumble”, Jer. 31:9], and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall”. They were easily discouraged by the words of the surrounding world, by the apparent hopelessness of their task; and thus they stumbled. Ezra 8:21 LXX describes how Ezra fasted for them to be given a “straight way”, as Jeremiah had foretold they could have. He saw the need for them to make the effort to fulfil the prophecy. Note how Ezekiel’s vision of the cherubim featured “straight” progress; the wheels on earth surely connect with how Israel should have been, moving in a straight way back to the land, in harmony with the Angel-cherubim above them likewise moving in a straight way. But they failed to “keep in step with the Spirit”... They were to walk “each one straight before him” (Isaiah 57:2 RVmg.), as each of the cherubim went straight ahead (Ezekiel 1:12). Psalms 107:2,7 RV speak of Israel being gathered out of the nations and being led in a “straight way” to Zion, as they had [potentially] been enabled to do on their departure from Egypt. Yet then they spent 38 years walking a distance coverable in just 11 days- because they did not walk in the “straight way”. The house of Israel were to “measure the pattern” of the temple just as the Angel had done; they were to work in harmony with the Angel, laying out the temple exactly as the Angel had done in the preceding vision (Ezekiel 43:10 cp. Ezekiel 40:5-13). And we too are to follow where our Angel potentially enables us to go.

Jer 31:12-13: “Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, and shall flow together to the goodness of the LORD, for wheat, and for wine, and for oil, and for the young of the flock and of the herd: and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all. Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, both young men and old together: for I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow”.

The wheat, wine and oil were all withheld by Yahweh as a result of their selfish materialism, according to Haggai and Malachi. And Nehemiah 5:3 specifically mentions that a “dearth” came even in Nehemiah’s time.

The young and old didn’t rejoice together- the old men wept at how small the temple was compared even with Solomon’s, whilst the younger ones rejoiced (Ezra 3:12). Sorrow at realising their sins is a feature of the Ezra and Nehemiah records- rather than joy in the real experience of God’s redemption. Again, are there similarities with ourselves? The life in Christ, the Kingdom life, is of all joy and peace through believing, of joy and peace in the spirit of holiness. But is this the life and mindset which we live?

Jer 31:14: “And I will satiate the soul of the priests with fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, saith the LORD”.

But the priests returned to mind their own fields because the tithes weren’t paid to them (Nehemiah 13:10).

Judah were commanded to return from Babylon in Jer 31:21: “Set thee up waymarks, make thee high heaps: set thine heart toward the highway, even the way which thou wentest: turn again, O virgin of Israel, turn again to these thy cities”. The same command to flee from the land of the north [Babylon] is to be found in Isaiah 48:20; Jer. 51:6; Zechariah 2:6; and they were to “get thee up to the high mountain” (Isaiah 40:9), using the same word about Judah ‘going up’ from Babylon to Israel. "A woman shall compass a man" (Jer. 31:22) suggests that the woman, Judah, were to take the initiative with God by mapping out the roads they would take back to Zion- the suggestion could be that the 70 year period of captivity could have been shortened had Judah taken the initiative.

But the majority of Judah remained in Babylon. And the majority of those who did return, only did so in order for purely personal benefit- of having their own house and land. They ‘went up’ to the land, but not to Zion. With reference to Isaiah 40:9, Hag 1:7-9 exhorted them: “Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Consider your ways. Go up to the mountain, and bring wood, and build the house; and I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified, saith the LORD. Ye looked for much [i.e. they expected the promised Kingdom blessings], and, lo, it came to little; and when ye brought it home, I did blow upon it. Why? saith the LORD of hosts. Because of mine house that is waste, and ye run every man unto his own house”. Their focus was on their own lands and farms rather than the glory of Zion (as Nehemiah 13:10,11). They stood related to the things of God’s kingdom, but never ventured beyond their own personal self-interest. They would not accept that God manifestation rather than human salvation and pleasure was the essential purpose of their God.

Jerusalem was to be renamed "Yahweh is our righteousness" (Jer. 33:16 RV)- Ez. 48:35 likewise is a command rather than a prediction, that the city should be called this.

But Judah didn't do this. The concept has been reapplied to those who call Yahweh's righteousness upon themselves in baptism.

Jer 33:18: “Neither shall the priests the Levites want a man before me to offer burnt offerings, and to kindle meat offerings, and to do sacrifice continually”.

But Nehemiah was heartbroken that the temple was “forsaken”, because the “Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field” because the tithes weren’t paid to them (Nehemiah 13:10,11).

Jer. 27:4,5 LXX prophesies that when Babylon falls, then Israel and Judah together “shall proceed, weeping as they go, seeking the Lord their God. They shall ask the way till they come to Zion...and they shall come and flee for refuge to the Lord their God”

When Babylon fell to Cyrus and the Persians, the Jews didn’t take this as any signal to leave. They didn’t repent; they didn’t come weeping to Zion; they stayed put, because the Persians treated them with favour. They didn’t perceive the need to “flee” from the temptations of prosperity, ease, and acceptance in society; and from this the latter day church must take a warning.

Jeremiah's Babylon Prophecies

Jer. 51:8 is clear that those who remained in Babylon rather than returning to Judah would be “cut off in her iniquity”. But actually this threatened judgment didn’t happen in that way. Most of the Jews did stay there, and simply assimilated into the world around them. Jer. 51:8 opens up another window into what God potentially planned at this time: “Take balm for [Babylon’s] pain, if so be she may be healed”. Balm in Jer. 46:11 refers to repentance. Surely this passage speaks of Judah appealing to Babylon to repent, and then coming out of her, returning to Judah, and leaving her to perish in her iniquity if she didn’t repent. God’s intention here was not carried out by Judah. They made no appeal for Babylon to repent. Only a few of them returned to Judah, most preferring the Babylon life. But had they done what God suggested, then the whole prophecies about Babylon’s destruction would have become conditional prophecies, exactly after the pattern of Jonah’s pronunciation of destruction upon Nineveh, which actually never came to pass because they did repent. So although the doom of Babylon was often prophesied, even this could have been avoided if Babylon had hearkened to the witness which Israel were supposed to make to her of their wonderful God. Remember how Jeremiah told the exiles to pray for the good of Babylon and to seek its' peace with God (Jer. 29:7). Consider too the nuance of John Bright's strict translation of Jer. 51:8,9: "Wail over (Babylon)! Get ointment for her hurt- perhaps it's curable. Though we treated her, Babylon mends not". The implication is clearly that God intended to use Judah to bring about Babylon's repentance, and only because this failed did He finally "Giver her up" to destruction (Jer. 51:9). If this scenario had happened, then the prophecies of judgment against Babylon would have been more clearly revealed for what I believe they were- conditional, upon her repentance.

Jer. 51:6,45 make it clear that every single Jew (“every man his soul”) was ordered by God to leave Babylon- and Jer. 51:60 clarifies that all these words were written down and that Seraiah read them to the Jews of Babylon. They were all supposed to “let Jerusalem come into your mind” (Jer. 50:50)- but in the end, only a minority like Nehemiah did so. Judah’s disobedience was chronic and specific. They rejected all the wonderful things which God had worked out for them in potential. It was such a tragedy, as tragic as when we individually are our community as a whole repeat it in our contexts today.

We have to remember that Jeremiah’s prophecies about Babylon were given in the context of the prophecies about Judah’s restoration. The fall of Babylon was clearly intended to be the signal that the Jews should leave and return: "Down comes Babylon's wall! Out from the midst of her, my people!" (Jer. 51:44,45). And Cyrus, the conqueror of Babylon, made the decree for the Jews to return to their land. And yet... most of them remained. Passages like Jeremiah 50 imply that when Babylon fell, Judah would return to their land and flourish into the Kingdom of God. But this didn’t happen. Another scenario worked out- Darius took over the kingdom of Babylon (Dan. 5:31), and the image prophecy of Daniel 2 explained that there would now have to be a succession of empires before the Kingdom of God would come. I therefore see Daniel 2 as a new prophetic scenario which would have to come into operation if Judah didn’t do as they were told in the prophetic word. Hence the vision has two ways of being read- the whole image could represent Babylon and its next rulers, which would be destroyed in toto and replaced by the restored Kingdom of God at the time it fell; or, it could be read as a long term prophecy of the ensuing centuries, if Judah didn’t turn into the Kingdom of God as they could have done. And this is the outworking that became necessary.

These different possible scenarios help explain how the 70 years of Babylon's mastery and Judah's captivity were not strictly fulfilled to the letter (Jer. 24:10). From the fall of Nineveh (612) to the fall of Babylon (539) was 73 years; or from Nebuchadnezzar's accession (605) to Babylon's fall (539) was 66 years (1). Was there a degree to which the period was prolonged or decreased, due to unstated variables- perhaps prayer, Judah's repentance, Babylon's repentance...?

Jeremiah Disbelieved

Jeremiah especially reveals the grace which God was so eager to show to the exiles. Jer. 7:3-7 made it clear that Judah’s return to the land was to be conditional upon them not oppressing the poor- only “then will I cause you to dwell in this place”. Yet in His grace and zeal for His people, it seems God overlooked that condition- for the returned exiles did oppress (Neh. 5:1-5), and yet they returned to the land. And yet they would’ve dwelt in Zion “for ever and ever” (Jer. 7:7) if they had not been abusive to others and truly loved God.

Jeremiah’s prophecies of gracious restoration were known by the exiles; but many passages in Isaiah, the Psalms (e.g. Ps. 137:7-9) and Lamentations (Lam. 5:20,21) indicate that the exiles had little conviction they would be fulfilled, considering Judah as “utterly rejected” by God, and just getting on with their lives in Babylon without any real hope in God’s salvation. Considering the prosperity of their lives there, this was an all too convenient conclusion for them to draw. Once again we see that false interpretation of Scripture invariably has a moral subtext to it. Is. 40:1,2 speaks a message of comfort to the exiles: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”. But [in full allusion to this prophecy], the exiles were like Rachael who refused to be comforted over her loss (Jer. 31:15); they claimed they found “none to comfort” (Lam. 1:2,16,17,21). But they were wilfully refusing the comfort of God’s repeated word of hope and restoration. They didn’t grasp the plain teaching of the prophetic word because they didn’t want to- it demanded too much of them, and a giving up of the comfortable Babylon life. Hence Is. 43:19 laments: “I am doing a new thing: now it springs forth [in the decree to return to Zion?], do you not perceive it?”. And do we "not perceive it?" time and again in our own lives, as to the potentials God is opening up?


(1) Dates taken from John Bright, Jeremiah (New York: Doubleday, 1965) p. 209.