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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

11.5 The Restoration: PotentialKingdom Of God

There is reason to think that it could have been possible for the Messianic Kingdom to have been established at the time of the restoration, and the temple prophecies would fit perfectly into this context. Thus Ezekiel emphasised that the sons of Zadok were to organize priestly work in the temple (Ez. 40:46; 43:19; 44:15; 48:11); and it was surely not incidental that Ezra, the leader of the initial restoration, was one of the sons of Zadok (Ezra 7:2). He was in a position to fulfil those prophecies, although the bulk of his brethren seem to have precluded this. Ezra was enabled to “beautify” the temple (Ezra 7:27), the very same word used in Is. 60:7,9,13 about how God would “glorify” [s.w.] His temple with merchandise from throughout the Babylonian empire- all of which was willingly offered by Cyrus and Darius. Ez. 40-48 stress the “gates” dozens of times; and Nehemiah’s account likewise stresses many times the attention he paid to setting up the “gates” [s.w.], as if he saw his work as fulfilling Ezekiel’s words. Ez. 40:42 speaks of the vessels to be used in the temple [AV “instruments”] with the same word used for the temple vessels which were brought up out of Babylon back to Judah, in fulfilment of several of Isaiah’s ‘Kingdom’ passages (Ezra 1:6-11; 8:25-33 cp. Is. 52:11; 66:20).  

Earlier Ezekiel had prophesied in 28:25,26: “Thus saith the Lord GOD; When I shall have gathered the house of Israel from the people among whom they are scattered, and shall be sanctified in them in the sight of the heathen, then shall they dwell in their land that I have given to my servant Jacob. And they shall dwell safely therein, and shall build houses, and plant vineyards; yea, they shall dwell with confidence, when I have executed judgments upon all those that despise them round about them; and they shall know that I am the LORD their God”. They were gathered back [although they resisted this in that many preferred to stay in the soft life of Babylon], but they hardly dwelt safely or confidently in their land. They planted vineyards, but received a poor harvest due to their lack of attention to God’s house; their enemies destroyed their fruits, and their vine “cast her fruit before the time” (Hag. 1:6; Mal. 3:10,11). Haggai and Malachi criticised Israel for this, saying it could be rectified by their obedience: “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it” (Mal. 3:10). Yet in Nehemiah’s time, Judah refused to pay tithes properly; but even then, if they had thoroughly repented, the Kingdom conditions were still possible. Such was God’s desire to continue working with His hopeless people.  

And Nehemiah did his very best to bring the potential Kingdom of God about by urging the people to repentance and conformity to God’s will, such was his perception of what was going on; that the coming of God’s Kingdom was being limited by the apathy of his own people. No fewer than 24 times in Ez. 40-48 are we told that the temple was to be built by ‘measure’ (e.g. Ez. 40:3,5,10,21,22,24,28,29); and the same word occurs frequently in describing how Nehemiah gave various groups of Jews their own ‘measure’ in the work of rebuilding Jerusalem (Neh. 3:11,19,20,22,24,27). He arranged for 12 gates to be built in the wall, as Ez. 48:31-34 had commanded there to be. He built ‘miphkad’, “the Muster Gate” (Neh. 3:31 RSV), the “appointed place” [s.w.] of Ez. 43:21. As he ‘measured out’ the work of rebuilding Jerusalem, he must have been conscious of the Kingdom prophecy of Jer 31:38-40: “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that the city shall be built to the LORD from the tower of Hananeel unto the gate of the corner. And the measuring line shall yet go forth over against it upon the hill Gareb, and shall compass about to Goath. And the whole valley of the dead bodies, and of the ashes, and all the fields unto the brook of Kidron, unto the corner of the horse gate toward the east, shall be holy unto the LORD; it shall not be plucked up, nor thrown down any more for ever”. It could have been fulfilled, this could have been the potential Kingdom of God, and he set about to seek to fulfil it; but those places were not kept “holy unto the Lord”, and therefore the Jews were to be again plucked up and thrown down.  

Is. 60:7 prophesied that God would “glorify the house of my glory”. But this was in fact a conditional prophecy, capable of fulfilment through the freewill efforts of the returning exiles. For they were empowered by Artaxerxes “to beautify [s.w. “glorify”] the house of the Lord” (Ezra 7:27). All their efforts to glorify / beautify the house, therefore, would have had God’s special and powerful blessing behind them. But was the house ultimately glorified? No- for Israel would not. They got sidetracked by beautifying their own homes, building “cieled houses” for themselves (Hag. 1:4). The word for “cieled” occurs in 1 Kings 6:9; 7:3,7 to describe the roofing of the first temple- which they were to be rebuilding, rather than building their own houses. The glory would have entered the house of God’s glory as it did at the inauguration of the first temple (2 Chron. 7:1-3). Ezekiel prophesied that ultimately the glory would fill the temple as it had done then (Ez. 43:4,5). But God’s prophesy of this in Is. 60:7, that He would glorify His house, meant that He was prepared to work through men to glorify it. The fulfilment of Ezekiel’s vision of the cloud of glory entering the temple again could have been fulfilled if the exiles had done what Artaxerxes empowered them to do- to glorify the house of glory. And so the fulfilment was delayed. The glory of the temple the exiles built was tragically less than the glory of the first temple; and so it would only be in the last day of Messiah’s 2nd coming that the house shall truly be filled with glory (Hag. 2:3,7,9). And the lesson ought to be clear for us, in the various projects and callings of our lives: it becomes crucial for us to discern God’s specific purposes for us, and insofar as we follow His leading, we will feel a blessing and power which is clearly Divine.  

The Potential Kingdom Of God Made Possible

The latter chapters of Ezekiel stress how Israel were to “inherit” the land; yet the same word is used in other restoration prophecies, about Messiah causing Israel to “inherit” the land again after their return from “the north country” (Zech. 2:12; 8:12; Is. 49:8; Jer. 3:18). When Judah returned from the “north country”, then Jerusalem would be the universally recognized “throne of the Lord” (Jer. 3:17,18). The Kingdom could have come when Judah returned from Babylon. It was therefore potentially possible for the returning exiles to inherit all the land outlined in Ez. 47:13-21 and share it out between the 12 tribes. But they grabbed every man for himself, his own farmstead, his own mini-Kingdom. They had no interest in the wider vision, nor in subduing extra land; and the majority of the Jews didn’t even want to inherit it; they preferred the soft life of Babylon, the Kingdom of men rather than the Kingdom of God. And thus the Kingdom made possible was never actually fulfilled at that time. Indeed, the whole exile and return need never have happened- the prophecies of this need not have come true in the way they did, for even before the Babylonian invasion, Judah had been offered the prospect of eternally remaining in their land, if they repented (Jer. 7:7). And after it happened, Jeremiah commented: “Your prophets…did not expose your sin to ward off your captivity” (Lam. 2:14 NIV). It could have been ‘warded off’ by the peoples’ repentance. Note how Jeremiah, himself a prophet at the time, so wishes to take the blame upon himself for not  pleading more powerfully with the people. Perhaps we will have similar feelings when the time of tribulation breaks forth in the very last days.  

 Is. 40:5 had called out to a Zion about to be restored that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed”. In other words, the temple ought to have been a re-establishment of Solomon’s, with God’s attendant acceptance of it also. However, this didn’t happen. Ezekiel saw a vision of the glory of Yahweh filling the temple (Ez. 43:5), as if to show that this, in line with Haggai’s words, was what could have happened at the restoration. However, it’s fulfilment must now await the future. Daniel’s prophecy that there would be a time of trouble for Israel, followed by a resurrection and judgment, may have had a potential fulfilment in Haman’s persecution. The LXX of Esther 5 includes her prayer, in which she says that Haman was seeking to hinder the work of the temple. This would explain why initially the Samaritans persuaded the Persians to make the work cease, but then (humanly inexplicably) another edict is given for it to resume. The people were delivered (Dan. 12:1), as they were by Michael the Angel manipulating Esther. But the resurrection, judgment and Kingdom didn’t follow, because Israel weren’t ready for it. Then those who turned many to righteousness- i.e. the priesthood, in the primary context- would be rewarded (Dan. 12:3). But Malachi and Haggai repeatedly criticised the priesthood at the time of the restoration for being selfish and not teaching Israel (Mal. 2:7). Daniel and Jeremiah were heartbroken that there had to be such a delay to the full fulfilment of the Messianic restoration of the Kingdom. 

Ezekiel 20 gives the clearest outline of the sequence we are suggesting. Verses 3-33 describe Israel’s sins up to the captivity; then there is the pleading with Israel in captivity (:35 = 17:20), with the intention that there in Babylon Israel would repent (:43). Then they would return to their land, build a temple and offer acceptable sacrifices (:40-42): “For in mine holy mountain, in the mountain of the height of Israel, saith the Lord GOD, there shall all the house of Israel, all of them in the land, serve me: there will I accept them, and there will I require your offerings, and the firstfruits of your oblations, with all your holy things. I will accept you with your sweet savour, when I bring you out from the people, and gather you out of the countries wherein ye have been scattered; and I will be sanctified in you before the heathen. And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall bring you into the land of Israel”. The idea of God ‘accepting’ Israel is found in 43:27; when the temple was built and the sacrifices offered, “I will accept you”. If Judah resumed building the temple according to Ezekiel’s plan, “I will take pleasure” in it, God offered (Hag. 1:8). They should be more committed to building the temple “that I may appear in my glory” (RSV). The glory of Yahweh as described at the end of Ezekiel could have appeared in Haggai’s time- but this wonderful possibility was held back by Israel’s petty minded, self-satisficing laziness. The same word is used in Ez. 43:27- then, when the temple of Ezekiel was built, Yahweh would “accept / take pleasure in” His people and temple. But because they built and served Him with such a mean spirit, He did not “accept” them at that time (Mal. 1:10,13 s.w.). Note how Hag. 1:8 describes the need to go up onto the mountain and build the temple- as if to recall attention to Ezekiel’s opening vision of the temple as built on a mountain. But Judah would not, and therefore the Kingdom blessings of corn, new wine and oil, as well as fruitfulness on the mountains, were all withheld (Hag. 1:11). These are all aspects of the promised Messianic Kingdom (e.g. Joel 2:19,24; Jer. 31:12). The very same sequence of words occurs in Neh. 5:11; 10:37,39; 13:5- instead of giving those things to Yahweh, the Jews stole them from each other, and jibbed about paying them as tithes to Him. And thereby they precluded the possibility of Yahweh richly blessing all His people with those very same things in a Kingdom setting. As with all those who are rejected from God’s purpose, they effectively rejected themselves from His Kingdom by their behaviour, rather than Him rejecting them Himself. 

The language of Israel’s return from captivity as found in Isaiah and Ezekiel all has evident reference to the second coming and the final establishment of the Kingdom. It isn’t just that Israel’s return under Ezra and Zerubbabel was a type of that final homecoming. It could have been the Kingdom- had they obeyed the prophecies. It was all about a potential Kingdom of God. But they were too caught up with their own self-interest, with building their own houses rather than God’s; and so it was all deferred. Using the prophetic perfect, God had prophesied that at the time of the restoration, He would come and dwell in rebuilt Zion (Zech. 8:3)- just as Ezekiel’s prophecy had concluded: “The name of the city from that day shall be, The LORD is there” (Ez. 48:35). Clearly, Ezekiel’s prophecies could have been fulfilled at the restoration; God was willing that they should be. But human apathy and self-interest stopped it from happening as it could have done. When the foundation stone of the temple was laid, there should have been excited acclamation: “Grace, grace unto it” (Zech. 4:7). But instead the old men wept when the foundation was laid, knowing that the temple was nothing compared to what it ought to be (Ezra 3:12). The glory of the restored temple was prophesied as being far greater than that of the former (Hag. 2:9); Is. 60:17 alluded to this in prophesying that “ For brass [in Solomon’s temple] I will bring gold, and for iron [that was in Solomon’s fixtures] I will bring silver, and for wood brass, and for stones iron”. But it simply didn’t happen, because God’s people were satisfied with a small, inglorious temple so that they could get on with building their own “cieled houses” (the same word is used in describing how the temple of Solomon was “covered”, or cieled, with cedar). And the old men wept at the fact that the glory of the new house was less than that of the earlier one. They would not even shut the doors of the temple without expecting payment (Mal. 1:10); and this is surely conscious reference to how Ezekiel’s temple necessitated the doors being shut at various times (Ez. 44:1,2; 46:1,2,12). They partly fulfilled some parts of the prophecy, but demanded payment for it! Other translations suggest that Mal. 1:10 really means that there was nobody to even shut the doors of the temple; there was nobody willing to fulfil Ezekiel’s prophecy / command about the temple doors being shut. 

Isaiah 45 is as clear a prophecy as any could wish. God categorically stated that Cyrus would be raised up by Him in order to release the captives in Babylon, and to enable the building of Jerusalem (45:12); all because God had formed the land [AV “earth”] of Israel to be inhabited and not to be left without His people dwelling upon it. And this happened; the captives were released (although most preferred to stay put in Babylon), and the building of Jerusalem was enabled (although the work was not done very enthusiastically by Judah, and they preferred to build their own houses rather than Yahweh’s). But the prophecy goes on in Is.  45:13-17: “I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the LORD of hosts. Thus saith the LORD, The labour of Egypt, and merchandise of Ethiopia and of the Sabeans, men of stature, shall come over unto thee, and they shall be thine: they shall come after thee; in chains they shall come over, and they shall fall down unto thee, they shall make supplication unto thee, saying, Surely God is in thee; and there is none else, there is no God...They shall be ashamed, and also confounded, all of them: they shall go to confusion together that are makers of idols. But Israel shall be saved in the LORD with an everlasting salvation: ye shall not be ashamed nor confounded world without end”. But the Egyptians and Ethiopians didn’t come and fall down before Judah, as the Queen of Sheba had before Solomon. Nor did they accept Yahweh as the only God, and ditch their idols. Instead, the returned Jews worshipped the idols of Egypt, and married their women (Ezra 9:1). And thus Israel wereashamed and confounded in the future. The same Hebrew words for “ashamed [and] confounded” occur in Ezra 9:6, where as a result of Ezra realising that Judah had married the local women and broken covenant with Yahweh, he admits: “I am ashamed and blush [s.w. ‘confounded’] to lift up my face to thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased....”. The words of Is. 45 could have had their fulfilment in the time of Cyrus; the surrounding nations could have come and worshipped before Judah, and the whole earth quit their idols and look unto Yahweh as a just God and a saviour. But Judah would not. Judah in the new temple would not “defile” Yahweh’s Name any more (Ez. 43:7,8); but they were lazy to keep the uncleanness laws, they did defile Yahweh by touching dead bodied and then offering the sacrifices (Hag. 2:13,14 s.w.), just as Israel previously had been defiled by touching the dead bodies of their kings and then offering sacrifices (Ez. 43:7); but now, Judah thought they were above God’s law, and therefore did exactly the same things which had caused the temple to be destroyed in the first place. The promise that Yahweh would dwell in the new temple was conditional on them not touching dead bodies (Ez. 43:9); but Hag. 2:13 makes it apparent that they did this very thing at the time of the restoration. 

Amos 9:11-15 is another example. The words are most comfortably interpreted when read as referring to the restoration of Judah and the “remnant” of the ten tribes to the land under Ezra: “In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old: That they may possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen, which are called by my name, saith the LORD that doeth this. Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt. And I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them. And I will plant them upon their land, and they shall no more be pulled up out of their land which I have given them, saith the LORD thy God”. “I will raise up” uses a Hebrew word very commonly featured in the records of the restoration, when the people were exhorted to “rise up and build” (Ezra 1:5; 3:2; 10:4,15; Neh. 2:18,20). The statement that they would “close up the breaches thereof” is exactly the language of Neh. 6:1, which records that the walls were rebuilt so that there was no breach [s.w.] therein. It was after the Babylonian invasion that Zion was “fallen” and ‘ruined’ (s.w. Jer. 31:18; 45:4; Lam. 2:2,17). “I will build it” is exactly the theme of the records of the return from Babylon (Ezra 1:2,3,5; 3:2,10; 4:1-4; Neh. 2:5,17,18,20; 3:1-3, 13-15; 4:1,3,5,6,10,17,18; 6:1,6; 7:1). Surely Amos 9 is saying that at the rebuilding at the time of the restoration, God’s people could have ushered in the Kingdom age of agricultural plenty and victory over their Arab neighbours. But they intermarried with Edom, and suffered drought because they didn’t fulfil the requirements to rebuild Zion correctly. But the words of Amos were still to come true in some form- they are given an application in Acts 15:17 which may appear to be way out of context, i.e. to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Thus words which could have had a plain fulfilment at the restoration were given a delayed fulfilment; but they were not fulfilled in a literal sense, but in a spiritual one. And so it is with prophecies like Ezekiel 38, and the temple prophecies of Ezekiel. They will be fulfilled in spiritual essence, but probably not in strict literality, although they could have been had God’s people been more ‘fulfilling’ of them.  

Ezekiel’s prophecies should have been an inspiration to Israel, that they might be obedient and live out these things as a reality before them, and thereby see other prophecies come true in their own experience. They could have entered upon an upward spiral of spirituality. The form of the house, the very description of it by Ezekiel, should have inspired them to feel that they had had enough of sin. Ez. 44:5,6 asked them to “mark well the entering in of the house, with every going forth of the sanctuary. And thou shalt say to the rebellious, even to the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; O ye house of Israel, let it suffice you of all your abominations”. These words are picked up from the LXX by Peter, and applied to all of us in 1 Pet. 4:3: “For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles”. The temple vision should have made them ashamed of their sins (Ez. 43:10,11). It should have motivated them to live the Kingdom life in their lives: “describe the Temple to the house of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities: and let them match their lives to its pattern”. But they didn’t. It may have been partly due to lack of familiarity with the text of the prophecy- Ezekiel would have preached it to them, but many of them were too busy with the Babylon life to reflect upon it. Those who returned to the land may well have done so not so much in order to get on with conformity to Ezekiel’s vision of the Kingdom, but for other reasons- their family and friends were going back, they felt some vague conscience that they ought to, perhaps their own experience of Babylon life hadn’t been positive and they vaguely hoped for something better... and so when they got there, they simply weren’t interested in serious conformity to the prophecies about restoration. And in principle, our own lives and apparent commitment before God can be just the same. It is evident that they didn’t reflect upon the real implications of the prophecies which they must all have vaguely known. And these  weaknesses must serve as the basis for our own self-examination: are we familiar with the text of Scripture, and more so, are we really meditating upon the personal implications for us? The people were warned that the temple had been destroyed because of their previous “abominations”, and that the rebuilt temple was not to feature any such abominations (Ez. 43:8; 44:6,7,13). “let it suffice you of your abominations” they were told- and then told not to allow the uncircumcised into the temple, as they had been doing Ez. 44:6,9). This sounds as if the prophecy of Ezekiel was more command than prediction- to those of his own day. But they returned, and committed the abominations [s.w.] of the Gentiles (Ezra 9:1,11,14) and married their daughters; to the extent that Malachi commented upon this: “Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination [s.w.] is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the LORD which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god” (Mal. 2:11).

Ez. 48:31-34 envisaged the 12 gates of Jerusalem being named after the 12 tribes of Israel. But it seems no accident that twelve separate gates of the city are mentioned in the restoration record- but they weren't renamed after the tribes of Israel. Here are the names of the city gates in Nehemiah: valley (Neh. 3:13); horse (Neh. 3:28); east (Neh. 3:29); Miphkad (Neh. 3:31); water (Neh. 8:16); dung (Neh. 12:31); fountain (Neh. 12:37); Ephraim, old, fish, sheep and prison gates (Neh. 12:39). No wonder some wept when the rebuilt temple was finally dedicated- the pattern of Ezekiel's vision hadn't been followed, even on such basic matters as the names of the twelve gates of Jerusalem.