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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 The Potential And The Reality

11-6-1 The Weakness Of Judah Under Nehemiah

There could even be the implication in the Hebrew of Neh. 1:3 that the majority of those who initially returned to Judah then returned back to Babylon- for Nehemiah speaks of "The remnant that are left of the captives there in the province" [of Judah]". We shouldn’t underestimate the seriousness of the famine conditions in Judah as described in Neh. 5. The sheer lack of food led the Jews to sell their children and land to their richer brethren just to get something to eat. Mal. 3:5-15 says that this was directly a result of their lack of zeal to rebuild and care for God’s house. What a far cry from the prophecies of plenty and huge harvests which had been made. So much potential was wasted. Neh. 5:8 records Nehemiah’s comment that the wealthy Jews were victimizing the poorer Jews just as Babylon once had, and now Nehemiah needed to redeem them from slavery just as God had redeemed His people from servitude in Babylon. God’s deliverance of His people simply hadn’t been responded to. Tragically, it would appear from Neh. 5:15 that Zerubbabel, the potential Messiah of Israel, had acted in this oppressive way too.

The emphasis in the record on bars, gates and locks (e.g. Neh. 3:15) was perhaps to highlight how the restoration prophecies of Ezekiel, of a people living confidently without those things, had actually not been fulfilled; and therefore the prophesied events of Ez. 38-40 didn't happen- i.e. an invasion of a restored Judah, dwelling without bars and gates, which would lead in to the rebuilding of the temple and establishment of the Kingdom. Note how the restoration Psalm Ps. 76:1-5 speaks in the prophetic perfect of a great battle at Jerusalem which Yahweh would win. Perhaps this speaks of the same battle spoken of in Ez. 38, which could have come true in God's prophetic program, had the people rebuilt the city as they should have done.

What Was Prophesied About The Restored Temple And Kingdom

What Actually Happened

There were to be “holy chambers” in the temple for the Levites (Ezekiel 46:19 and very often in Ezekiel 40-48). The uncircumcised Gentiles were not to be brought into the sanctuary (Ezekiel 44:7). It was God’s intention that when Judah returned from Babylon, the uncircumcised would not come into Zion (the temple), and the Kingdom would be established (Isaiah 52:1,11). There was to be no Canaanite in the house of Yahweh (Zechariah 14:21).

Tobiah the Ammonite was given a chamber in the temple for him to use as an office for undermining God’s people (Nehemiah 13:7-9).

Sacrifices were to be without blemish (Ezekiel 43:23)

They offered blemished animals (Mal. 1:8), because they wanted the nicer meat and more money for themselves- petty materialism stopped the Kingdom experience being realized.

The house was not to be profaned (Ezekiel 44:7)

Judah profaned the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:17,18), and profaned the temple by their marriage with Gentiles and their “weariness” with the temple ordinances (Mal. 1:12; 2:10,11). They got bored with the things of the Kingdom, and so they had no part in it.

The covenant was not to be broken; the temple had been destroyed before because of breaking covenant with Yahweh (Ezekiel 44:7).

Judah broke covenant [s.w.] with Yahweh at the time of the restoration by marrying Gentiles and worshipping their gods (Ezra 9:1,14).

Ezekiel 42:20: “He measured it by the four sides: it had a wall round about, five hundred reeds long, and five hundred broad, to make a separation between the sanctuary and the profane place”. This reflected the difference between God’s people, His “sanctuary” (Psalms 114:2), and the surrounding world.

But Judah did not ‘separate’ themselves from the surrounding tribes but instead married them and worshipped their idols (s.w. Ezra 9:1 “The people of Israel...have not separated themselves from the people of the land, doing according to their abominations...for they have taken of their daughters for themselves”). The same word for “abominations” occurs in the same context in Mal. 2:11: “Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination 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”. Yet it had been emphasised that the temple system Ezekiel described was to be free of all the “abominations” [s.w.] previously committed by Israel (Ezekiel 43:8; 44:6,7,13).

In fact, the account of Judah’s separation from the surrounding peoples reads similar to that of the purges from idolatory during the reign of the kings. They separated / purged, and then, within a few years, we read of them doing so again. Initially, the exiles separated from the peoples of the land (Ezra 6:21); by 9:1 they are in need of separating again; and by 10:11 likewise; then they separate (10:16), only to need another call to separation by the time of Nehemiah 9:2; 13:3. They obviously found it extremely difficult to be separated from the surrounding world unto God’s law (Nehemiah 10:28). There was a powerful logic- either separate from the world around, or be separated from the people of God (Ezra 10:8). It’s a separation- one way or the other.

Judah were to keep the charges of God relating to His house (Ezekiel 40:46; 44:8,14-16).

Nehemiah, seeking for Israel’s obedience to Ezekiel’s vision, tried to get them to “keep the charges” (s.w. Nehemiah 7:3; 12:9,45; 13:20). But soon, Judah complained that there was no benefit to them from having kept the charges (Mal. 3:14 s.w.). Partial obedience discouraged them from any further effort, because the fullness of blessing can only come from a way of life conformed to God’s Kingdom vision and life. This is why people get disillusioned with religion and lose even the true faith- because they seek for immediate benefit as a result of keeping a few highly specific aspects of God’s law, rather than willingly devoting their way of life to the realisation of His vision.

The Levites were not to marry divorcees or Gentiles (Ezekiel 44:22)

They did just this (Ezra 9:1; Mal. 2:11-16).

The Levites were to teach Judah and to make others discern between good and evil (Ezekiel 44:23). The sons of Zadok were chosen because they had been faithful previously.

They should have done this, but instead “ye have caused many to stumble at the law; ye have corrupted the covenant of Levi” (Mal. 2:7,8). The sons of Zadok were descendants of Eleazer and Phinehas (1 Chron. 6:3-8), and Mal. 2:5 alludes to this: “My covenant was with him of life and peace: and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared me, and was afraid before my name” (cp. Ex. 32:28). But Mal. 2:6-8 go on to show that the sons of Zadok, as the descendants of Phinehas, had not lived up to their pedigree; they were making men “stumble at the law”. This shows the connection between the Ezekiel prophecies and Malachi’s commentary on their failed fulfilment in the hands of men like the sons of Zadok.

The Levites were to judge justly (Ezekiel 44:24).

But Zechariah 7:9; 8:16 [s.w.] had to exhort them to stop judging unjustly.

“They shall come near to my table” (Ezekiel 44:16).

They did, but they despised it (Mal. 1:7,12), they found it such a weariness.

The Levites were to touch no dead body (Ezekiel 44:25)

But they did (Hag. 2:13).

Tithes were to be paid to the Levites (Ezekiel 44:30).

Nehemiah’s record and Mal. 3:8 make it clear that this didn’t happen, due to petty selfishness.

The princes would not oppress the people (Ezekiel 45:8); “Moreover the prince shall not take of the people's inheritance by oppression, to thrust them out of their possession” (Ezekiel 46:18).

But they did (Nehemiah 5:1-5; Zechariah 7:10; Mal. 3:5).

The princes were to give the rest of the land to the people of Israel (Ezekiel 45:8)

But they made their poor brethren mortgage it to them so that effectively they took it for themselves (Nehemiah 5:3).

Ezek 45:9: “Let it suffice you, O princes of Israel: remove violence and spoil, and execute judgment and justice, take away your exactions from my people”.

Nehemiah 5 records that Judah did the very opposite, and Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi all record social injustice as being the order of the day at the time of the restoration.

Ezek 45:25: “In the seventh month, in the fifteenth day of the month, shall he [the prince] do the like in the feast of the seven days, according to the sin offering, according to the burnt offering, and according to the meat offering, and according to the oil”.

Zechariah 7:5 criticised the Jews for keeping this feast only externally, but not “unto me”. Hag. 2:1 records how on the 21st day of the 7th month- i.e. once the seven day feast that began on the 15th had finished- Haggai was sent to rebuke “the prince”, Zerubbabel, for being so slack in fulfilling Ezekiel’s vision. Even by the time of Nehemiah 8:14-17, it was so that the feast of the 7th month had not been kept by Judah since the time of Joshua. They subconsciously switched off to Ezekiel’s words; just as we can all do. They reasoned that “the time” of which he spoke hadn’t come- even though the temple had miraculously been enabled to be rebuilt, for no human benefit at all to Cyrus (Isaiah 45:13 “not for price nor reward”). They felt that all the prophecies were “marvellous” in the sense of something incapable of concrete fulfilment in their experience (Zechariah 8:6). This is why Hag. 1:2 rebuked them for saying “the time is not come…that the Lord’s house shoild be built”. They didn’t want the prophecy to be fulfilled, because it would mean ‘going up’ from their ceiled houses- both in Babylon and in the farmsteads they had built in Judah- to build the temple.

Ezek 46:3: “Likewise the people of the land shall worship at the door of this gate before the LORD in the Sabbaths and in the new moons”.

“The people of the land” hung around the gates of the city on the Sabbath in order to do some trading of goods (Nehemiah 13:19,20).

Ezekiel 42:13: “Then said he unto me, The north chambers and the south chambers, which are before the separate place, they be holy chambers, where the priests that approach unto the LORD shall eat the most holy things”

The same words are found in Ezra 2:63 and Nehemiah 7:65- it wasn’t possible for the priests to eat of the holy things [signifying God’s acceptance of His people], because there was no record of their genealogy. Their names were not written in the “register” in fulfilment of Ezekiel 13:9: “neither shall they be written in the writing [s.w. ‘register’, Ezra 2:62] of the house of Israel”. Only if a priest stood up with urim and thummim could they eat of the holy things. These were two engraven stones carried in a pouch in the breastplate which flashed out Divine decisions (see H.A. Whittaker, Samuel, Saul And David for an excellent study of this). Zechariah 3:9 prophesies that Joshua the High Priest would have the engraven stone with seven eyes- the urim and thummim. It would thereby have been possible for a priesthood who had lost their genealogy record during the sacking of the first temple to eat the holy things, and thus fulfil Ezekiel 42:13. In a restoration context, Isaiah 66:21 had prophesied that Yahweh would regather Judah, “And I will also take of them for priests and for Levites, saith the LORD”. This implies, surely, that He would accept some as Levites who could not otherwise prove they were. Zechariah 6:11,13 speaks of Joshua being crowned with the High Priestly mitre and ‘bearing the glory’, i.e. carrying the urim and thummim in the breastplate. But all this was conditional on Joshua’s obedience: “This shall come to pass, if ye will diligently obey” (6:15). Because Joshua failed, he didn’t have urim and thummim, therefore no decision could be given about who was an acceptable priest, and therefore the ‘Kingdom’ prophecy of Ezekiel 42:13 was left unfulfilled. So much depended upon that man. And likewise, the eternal destiny of many others depends on us. Isaiah’s prophecies of the restoration feature “the servant”- who was a symbol of both the people and a Messianic individual. His success was bound up with theirs. Thus Isa 65:9: “And I will bring forth a seed [singular] out of Jacob, and out of Judah an inheritor [singular] of my mountains: and mine elect [plural] shall inherit it, and my servants [plural] shall dwell there”. His obedience would enable the peoples’ establishment as the Kingdom.

There were to be gate openers (Ezekiel 46:12)

There were gate openers, but they demanded to be paid for their services, or [so modern versions] they were nowhere to be found (Mal. 1:10). The difference in the translations reflects the Hebraism: if you won’t serve for nothing, then you haven’t served.

It's stressed twice that only "some" of the returned exiles supported the work of the temple (Ezra 2:68-70)- which was supposed to be the main reason for their return. Comparing the list of names in the list of returnees in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7,  we find that a number of names recur in both lists, e.g. Bazluth (Ezra 2:52; Neh. 7:54). It could be that some went from Babylon to Judah with Ezra, then returned to Babylon, and returned with Nehemiah. This hardly sounds like the glorious, positive, confident return of the captives to Zion prophesied in the restoration prophecies.

Baruch’s Window Into The Mindset Of The Exiles
Although the Apocryphal book of Baruch isn’t inspired, it gives a significant window into the mindset of the exiles in Babylon. Baruch 1:10 mentions how the attitude was that the majority wanted to send funds to support the ‘good work’ going on in Judah- but didn’t want to return there themselves. Like the book of Esther, this indicates that the exiles had soon quit languishing by the rivers of Babylon, and had quickly acquired wealth and some degree of prosperity. Inspired prophecies had warned them of the fall of Babylon, and their need to flee out of it and return to Judah. And yet Baruch 1:12 records the exiles praying “that we may live long under the protective shadow of [the] king of Babylon”. This is in sad contrast to Daniel’s prophecies that the sheltering tree of Babylon was to be cut down! There ought to have been an urgency about the need to flee from Babylon. Zech. 2:10 speaks of the need to "flee" and "escape"- the language of crisis. And the call "Ho!" means quite literally "Hey!!". The urgency to flee was spiritual rather than physical- for there's no evidence that when Babylon fell to the Persians, the Jews were punished. Indeed they appear [from Esther] to have prospered even more. Hence the urgent appeal was to flee from the spiritual crisis which they faced in Babylon. And yet they didn't perceive the danger, just as so many today don't. For the call to leave Babylon is applied in New Testament passages like 2 Cor. 6 to our call to leave the world in which we live. The urgency of 'fleeing' from Babylon was understood by Nehemiah, when he referred to those who had returned to the land as those who has "escaped" from Babylon (Neh. 1:2)- even though they had returned with every blessing from the authorities. He perceived as few did the vital danger of remaining in the soft life of Babylon. Ezra likewise had referred to the Jews in Babylon as those "in bondage... bondmen" (Ezra 9:9)- when historical records, as well as the book of Esther and the fact Nehemiah the Jew was the king's cupbearer, show that the Jews were very far from being servants in Babylonian society. Yet Ezra perceived the spiritual poverty and servanthood of remaining in that affluent society.

The exiles asked for ‘deliverance’- but they redefined ‘deliverance’ as meaning being allowed to live prosperously in the land of their captivity (Baruch 1:12 cp. 2:14), rather than being delivered from Babylon and returning to Judah. In a way, the book of Esther shows how God heard this prayer. But the book of Esther therefore has a sad ending, with the Jews prosperous, loved and respected, and even further away from returning to the land. Indeed, Baruch 2:21 records them misquoting Jer. 27:12 about the need to obey the King of Babylon during their captivity, and understanding this as meaning they were to remain in Babylon! Baruch 6:2 is perhaps the most serious example of misquoting and wilfully misunderstanding God’s word. Here, Baruch [as Jeremiah’s scribe] changes the prophecy of Jer. 29:10, that Israel were to be 70 years in Babylon and then return: “When you reach Babylon you will be there many years, a period seven generations long, after which I will bring you back”. The 70 years are turned into seven generations. This was precisely the mindset spoken against in Haggai 1:2, whereby the Jews reasoned that the time had not yet come to rebuild the temple. “The time” referred to the time spoken of by Jeremiah- but Baruch had re-interpreted the 70 years as meaning seven generations. And yet all this was done with a surface-level reverence for God’s word- the exiles considered themselves blessed because they had God’s law (Baruch 4:4). Indeed, much of Baruch is a condemnation of idols and a demand to worship Yahweh.

Summing up, the book of Baruch reveals the following mindset:
- Wealth and prosperity amongst the exiles
- A feeling that they could buy favour with God by giving materially to those who were obedient and returning to Judah
- A re-reading / re-interpretation of Bible prophecies in order to justify their lack of obedience
- A love of ‘Babylon’, a desire to remain there, and a reasoning around the clear prophecies about Babylon’s doom and the need for God’s people to leave her
- A desire to pray to God, worship Him, make a big noise about rejecting idols, retain their identity as God’s people, and yet a refusal to live up to the responsibilities this entailed.

And we have to ask how relevant all this is for us…?


We have commented elsewhere about the way in which the righteous remnant were actually persecuted by the other Jews in Babylon, according to the testimony of the later parts of Isaiah. One significant problem which they had right from the start was that they insisted that the captivity was unfair, it was not their fault, they were righteous and were being unfairly punished for the sins of their fathers. Ezekiel 18 addresses this at length with them. God's intention was that His exiled people would "declare all their abominations among the nations whither they come", i.e. the 127 provinces of Babylon (Ez. 12:16). Note how confession of personal failure and testimony to God's forgiveness is actually a powerful witness to unbelievers. But instead, Ezekiel had to reason against the Jews' insistence that they had not sinned, and were being unfairly punished for their fathers' sins by an unjust God (Ez. 18). And so likewise it happens with us all too often that the potential witness which we could make simply isn't made. Jeremiah complained that the false prophets refused to expose Judah's iniquity, and made up all sorts of other reasons for her exile (Lam. 2:17). The purpose of Jonah, a book which according to Jewish tradition and the Talmud was written up in the exile, was perhaps to appeal to the Jews not to be so self-righteous and exclusivist. Jonah seems to think that "the presence of the Lord" is only in the land of Israel- and by going to Gentile territory he was somehow freed from his obligations. Jonah's falling into a "deep sleep" (Jonah 1:5) invites the Hebrew mind to compare other incidents of prophets having contact with God in association with "deep sleep" (Ps. 76:7; Dan. 10:9; 1 Kings 19:5)- the point being that no, God hasn't finished with Jonah. And likewise Judah had left the land, but God was still eager to work with them. And Jonah's having to 'own up' to being Jewish connects with how Mordecai uses the same word "Jew" to 'own up' to the Persians (Esther 3:4). Jer. 51:34 describes Babylon as a sea monster gulping down Israel into his stomach- using the same Hebrew words as in Jonah. Jonah's experience is thus presented as that of Judah in captivity. And yet Jonah's psalm from the fish's belly has evident connections with Messianic prophecies of the crucifixion of Jesus (e.g. Ps. 69:16). Through the whole experience, of sin, failure, rebellion, fleeing from the land, God so worked that Jonah came to know the spirit of Christ crucified. And so God sought to teach Israel; and so He [quite amazingly] works through our own sin and failure to bring us to know His most essential spirit. Ezekiel was up against the idea amongst the captives that Yahweh had forsaken the land (Ez. 8:12). Hence his visions of God's cherubim-angels, present both in the land as well as amongst the captives by Chebar in Babylon (Ez. 10:20). It was the same message as the lesson of Jonah- who likewise thought that Yahweh somehow only operated within the land of Israel. It's also surely intentional that the repentance and subsequent witness of Jonah led to the King of Assyria [often paralleled with Babylon in the prophets] made a phenomenally unexpected decree and published it (Jonah 3:7)- which ought to have prepared the faithful in exile for the possibility that such a decree could be forthcoming from the King of Persia. It did in fact happen (Ezra 1:1-4). But it happened by grace, for there seems to have been little true repentance let alone preaching by the Jews in exile.

Haggai's Criticisms

Haggai's criticism of the returnees is more understandable if we understand that most of them were the poor, who hadn't 'made it' in Babylon. It would be fair to infer that only the poor Jews returned from Babylon. The record in Ezra 2:64-70 speaks of 42,360 people returning, along with 7,337 servants and 200 singers, making a total of 49,837. And yet only 8,100 animals went with them to transport them. This means that many would have walked. They carried 5,400 vessels for use in the temple- so the picture could be that their more wealthy brethren laded them with goods, but only the poor returned. Further, the list of towns of origin in Ezra 2 suggests it was mainly those who had originally lived in peripheral villages who returned, rather than the inhabitants of Jerusalem and larger cities.

Haggai's prophecy can be dated quite precisely- it was given August-September 520 BC. This was harvest time. And at this very labour intensive season, where all hands had to be on deck out in the fields, the prophet called for a dedication of labour to building up God's house. Yet Judah were too concerned with their own harvests than the harvest of God's glory. They were asked to do something counter-instinctive- to take time out from harvest, and spend that time on building up God's house. And they failed the challenge. But it wasn't that they were simply lazy. Hag. 1:8, a prophecy given 18 years after the decree of Cyrus, orders the people to go up into the hills of Judah and get wood with which to build the temple. And yet according to Ezra 3:7, the decree of Cyrus 18 years earlier had resulted in cedar wood being brought from Tyre and Sidon, enough for the temple to be built. Where had the wood gone? Is the implication not that the leadership had used it for their own "cieled houses" (Hag. 1:4)? It all seems so petty minded. But this is what we are tempted to do, time and again- build up our own house and leave God's house desolate and in a very poor second place. And even worse- Hag. 1:9 records that the people expected "much" harvest, and were disappointed at the poor yields in Palestine. This would confirm the suggestion that many of those Jews who did return from Babylon were amongst the poor in Jewish exile society, and returned in home for personal betterment- rather than because they wished to obey the call of the prophets and establish God's glory in the land. That's a sober warning for all of us who may go through an external appearance of zeal for our God, whilst having very selfish and human motives underneath. Why, e.g., does a young woman so zealously attend church? Is it to worship God and build up His family... or because she perceives it as a potential meeting place with 'Mr. Right'? And so the examples could be multiplied. The poor harvests were because 'the heavens withheld their dew' (Hag. 1:10)- exactly the language of 1 Kings 8:35, which said that in such case, the people were to repent and pray towards the temple in Zion! But they didn't want to build that temple, they wanted rather to build up their own glory and homesteads. All things could've worked so wonderfully together for good; but they didn't want to participate in the program God had arranged, and so instead a downward spiral kicked in.

It should be noted that according to Hag. 1:1, the prophecy of Haggai (at least chapter 1) was specifically directed to two men- Zerubbabel, and Joshua the High Priest. Haggai's words are full of implication that these men could have achieved so much, and yet chose not to rise up to their potentials. Hag. 1:9 takes on particular significance when read in this light: "My house lies desolate whilst you run about, each man [i.e. Zerubbabel and Joshua] to his own house. It was those two who preferred to dwell in their "cieled houses" whilst God's house lay desolate (Hag. 1:4). The reference to "cieled houses" would be only relevant to the upper classes- it would hardly be applicable to all the returned exiles. If this line of interpretation is correct, then we can understand these two men as focusing more on their own homes than on God's house, and fulfilling the great potential possible if it had been built according to Ezekiel's specifications.

Even amongst those who returned to the land, only a minority wished to take their spiritual possibilities seriously. The returned exiles are called "this people" (Hag. 1:2; 2:14) or "the people of the land" (Hag. 2:4), but only "the remnant of the people" (Hag. 1:12- AV "the rest of the people") actually responded to the call of the prophets like Haggai who encouraged them in the work. Hag. 2:16,17 gives very precise commentary on the state of the harvests in Judah after the return- grain stores were 50% below the norm, and the amount of wine produced was 60% less than expected. Remember that Haggai was addressing the returned exiles. Surely these figures were well known to the people- for they had presumably worked them out, and Haggai is quoting their figures back to them. Notice how the people had worked out the yield of wine which they expected. The implication would seem to be that they returned to Judah expecting material prosperity, good harvests and personal wealth; hence their bitter disappointment when they didn't get it. This, then, would appear to have been their motivation for the return- rather than obedience to the words of the prophets or a desire to see God's Kingdom established in His land.

Idolatory Amongst The Returned Exiles

The valley of dry bones vision in Ez. 37 depicted Israel in captivity as bones waiting to come together and return to the land as a great army. Jer. 8:1 and other passages earlier in Ezekiel (Ez. 6:5; 24:4) had described both Judah and Israel as dry bones. The feeling of those bones was that "our bones are dried and our hope is lost" (Ez. 37:11). Judah in captivity felt that they had no "hope", that God had cast them off, and that they were unable to have a full relationship with Him outside the land. However, it seems that this was a rather convenient piece of theology for them- they were doing well in Babylon, and despite the opportunity to return to the land, they largely chose to remain in Babylon.

Zechariah's vision of the flying scroll indicates the extent of Judah's weakness. The size and proportion of it was unreal for a scroll- "twenty cubits long and ten cubits wide" (Zech. 5:2) is about 10 metres by 5 metres. This disproportion was obviously to draw attention to something- and we find that the size of the temple porch / entrance in Solomon's temple was exactly of this size (1 Kings 6:3). And yet the scroll is described as entering into "the house of the thief" (Zech. 5:4). Nehemiah records how the poor returnees were abused and effectively thieved from by the wealthy. And the Lord Jesus lamented how God's house had become "a den of thieves". But there's another reference to this 20 x 10 cubits size. The cherubim over the ark were ten cubits high and their wings were 5 cubits long, and one wing pointed back, whilst the other pointed forward, to touch the wing of the other cherub. Thus each cherub occupied a space 10 cubits high and 10 cubits across; and the two cherubim over the ark thus occupied a space 20 cubits long and 10 cubits wide- exactly the size of the flying scroll. The fact the scoll 'flies' invites us to make another connection with the cherubim, flying / hovering as it were over the ark. Yet this shekinah glory is changed in the vision into a curse. This is how very displeased God was with what was being done by those who returned- His presence and glory were no longer there, only a curse upon them. Effectively, the returnees had turned God's temple into a parody of the Babylonian temples. The winged pseudo-cherubim carry an "ephah" (Zech. 5:6). The Sumerian word for one of the Babylonian ziggurats, a shrine to a goddess, was e'pa, the same Hebrew word as translated "epha" (1). The foreign woman in the vision wishes to return to Babylon and build a house / temple there. The woman is simply called "wickedness". Is there not here a hint that the essence of Judah's failure was in their marriage to foreign women, perhaps even their own wives were from Babylon and wanted to return there. Marriage to Gentiles is stressed in Ezra 10 and Neh. 13:23-27 as the epitome of Judah's sin. Even the four sons of Joshua the High Priest had married Gentiles (Ezra 10:18). The Hebrew word translated "wickedness" is harisha- an anagram of 'Asherah'. She is presented as a goddess- in that the foreign women are always associated with he idols they served. We know that the first temple was destroyed because of the Asherah entering the temple (2 Kings 23:4-7; 1 Kings 15:13). And it seems Judah never learnt that lesson. The two female winged creatures who remove the ephah to Babylon (Zech. 5:9) are surely parodies of the Angel cherubim. The glory of God was simply not there. Note how the Angel 'comes forth' (Zech. 5:5), and then the winged women are described as 'going forth' with the same Hebrew word (Zech. 5:9).

It has been said that Judah rejected idolatry on their return from Babylon. I submit that this and other Biblical evidence is different. They mixed pagan thinking with their form of Judaism, and although physical idols were rejected, the results of this idolatry by the early returnees influenced Judaism permanently. Thus Zech. 6:1 pictures Yahweh's cherubim, Angelic chariots coming out from between two bronze mountains. In the ancient Near East there was the common idea that the sun god appeared each morning in his chariot from between two mountains (2). Zechariah's point [as is the point of Psalm 19, which uses the same images] is that it is the God of Israel who is the God of the sun, and not Shamash or some such similar deity of men's imagination. But the exiles clearly needed this reminder; we remember how only a generation or so before, Ezekiel found them worshipping the sun god in Yahweh's temple. And earlier, Josiah had removed the "chariots of the sun" from the temple mount (2 Kings 23:11). Yet it seems that the Jews' desire to mix Yahweh's temple with the sun god was still just as strong even after the exiles returned. Note how Zech. 6:10 still calls the returned community "the exiles"- as if to suggest that they still had the mentality with which they went into captivity. The temptation to mix flesh and spirit is simply very powerful, and recurs daily in our lives in various forms. In those temptations we face what the exiles faced- a desire to appear faithful to God externally whilst doing exactly what they wanted, influenced by the world around them. In Zech. 7:1-6 we have the record of the delegation from Bethel, who come to enquire whether they should keep fasting for the temple to be rebuilt, as they had done for the last 70 years. God's answer is that they hadn't really fasted for Him. They'd fasted, publically appearing to love the temple and the idea of a restored Kingdom... but in reality they had not done it for God, but somehow for themselves.

The exiles were reminded that the Babylon where they lived had wasted God's people, and thus she was to be wasted (Ps. 137:3,8 AVmg.). But human beings are so fickle. Because life was easy there, the captives came to prefer Babylon to the distant Zion. They wept, initially, when they remembered Zion- and yet according to Ez. 8, back there in Zion there were awful abominations and idolatry being committed in the temple of Zion. Their weeping was mere nostalgia; their refusal to sing the temple songs was mere stubbornness, there was no genuine commitment to Yahweh's way. And it was because of this that God confirmed them in their desire to stay in Babylon. He had elsewhere predicted that He would stop them returning "to the land whereunto their soul longeth to return" (Jer. 22:27 RV). And He did this by confirming them in their desire to remain in Babylon.

Idolatry In Babylon

So much of later Isaiah is taken up with mockery and criticism of the Babylonian gods and the Marduk cult. The book of Esther, with Mordecai as the joint hero, named as he was after Marduk, demonstrates how caught up were the Jews with the Babylonian gods. Ezekiel repeatedly reveals the idolatry of the captives. Isaiah was therefore an appeal for the Jews to quit the Marduk cult and believe in the radical prophecies about the overthrow of Babylon. The situation is analogous to how the New Testament is full of references to the Roman imperial cult of empire worship. So much of the Bible is like Isaiah and the New Testament- a radical, counter-cultural call to see our present world for what it is, and to perceive that the ways of God simply can’t be mixed in, watered down or compromised with the way of this world. Naturally such criticisms of Babylon and its gods would have been a very risky thing- for Babylon had shown grace to many Jews and they were doing well in rising up the social and economic ladder there. To speak of Babylon in the hostile way the prophets do was a brave and unpopular thing (Is. 13,14,21,46; Jer. 50,51; often in Zechariah). We know from Ez. 8, Jer. 44 and Zech. 5 that many Jews had accepted the idols of their Babylonian conquerors, rather like Ahaz did after his defeat by Assyria (2 Kings 16:10). The spirit of ridiculing the idolatry of Babylon whilst living in it, waiting the call to leave, is so relevant to modern Christians working, living and waiting in latter day Babylon.

Alexander Heidel analyzed the recovered Babylonian poem to Marduk Enuma Elish, discovering phrase after phrase in it which recurs in Isaiah- with reference to Yahweh exclusively (3). The similarities are exact, and impressive. Without doubt, Isaiah was developing a major theme in his later writings- that the true Israel of God must not have any part in the Marduk cult, and must understand all the claims made for Marduk as being untrue, and solely appropriate to Yahweh God of Israel. Consider some of the claims made for Marduk (exact references given in Heidel):

- “Marduk is King alone” (cp. “Your [Israel’s] God reigns as King!”, Is. 52:7)

- “None among the gods can equal him”

- Marduk killed Tiamat in the waters and cut him in pieces [applied to Yahweh in Is. 51:9,10]

- Creator of the stars (cp. Is. 40:26; Is. 45:12).

- Marduk is without comparison (cp. Is. 40:18,25 etc.)

- Marduk was, and no other (cp. Is. 45:5,6 etc.)

There are also mocking allusions to Marduk, showing Yahweh’s supremacy over him. Marduk was formed- but Yahweh had no god before Him and will have none after Him (Is. 43:10). Marduk had a counsellor, Ea, called in the inscriptions “the all-wise one”. But Yahweh has all wisdom and has no such counsellor (Is. 40:13,14; Is. 41:28) (4). All this reference to the Marduk cult was in my opinion not merely a pointless mockery and poking of fun at the Persian culture. It was a very real appeal to the Jewish exiles to quit it, to come out and be separate; remember again and again that Mordecai [and perhaps Esther too] had adopted names reflective of the Marduk cult.

Grace And Impenitence

Ezekiel had prophesied that those who survived the famine and invasion of Judah would go into captivity, "and I will draw out a sword after them" (Ez. 5:2,12). We would expect from this that the exiles would be persecuted and slain in captivity, and this surely was God's intended judgment. But in Esther we find the exiles in prosperity, in positions of power, and respected by their captors; and Jeremiah concludes his long prophecy with the information that Jehoiachin, Judah's exiled King, was exalted " above the throne of the kings that were with him in Babylon" and he was given special favour and honour by the King of Babylon (Jer. 52:31-34). I can only understand these things as pure grace. God showed tenderness and favour to His people in captivity, far above what He had intended or what they deserved. And He does the same with us- He gives us so much more than we deserve. And yet most of Judah abused that grace; they were so taken up with the good life God gave them in captivity that they chose to remain there and not participate in the restoration. And we so easily can end up abusing His grace likewise.

Likewise the exiles were warned time and again to flee from Babylon back to the land, so that they wouldn't share in the destruction of the city. There's no record they did so; and yet by grace, God seems to have preserved them from perishing or even suffering as a result of the Persian takeover of Babylon. Indeed, they prospered under the Persians. The voice of the faithful remnant pleaded with the other exiles after the fall of Babylon: "Babylon is fallen...forsake her [as they had been told to do before Babylon fell, Jer. 51:6], and let us go and return to our own country... and let us declare in Zion the work of the Lord" (Jer. 51:8,10). God's patient grace to the Jews in Babylon was amazing.

Isaiah urged the Jews to return to the land by saying that God had forgiven them, and on this basis He appealed for them to both ‘repent’ and ‘return’ to the land. The two terms are related. Thus He showed His grace; forgiveness preceded, not followed, repentance. Is. 44:22 is clear about this: “I have swept away your transgressions like clouds [therefore] return to me, for I have [already] redeemed you”. God was angry with their sins, but kept no record of them- hence He could comfort Judah that there was actually no documentary evidence for their divorce (Is. 50:1) and therefore she could return to Him. As Paul put it, the goodness of God leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4). And we are asked to show that same “goodness” of God to others, being “kind [s.w. ‘goodness’] one to another… forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). We too are to show this grace of forgiveness-before-repentance; but perhaps in no other area has formalized, institutionalized Christianity failed worse. If XYZ shows us she’s repented of her divorce, then we’ll forgive her and accept her in fellowship [as if, in any case, we are the ones who need to forgive her]. These are graceless and yet terribly common attitudes. The Greek word translated “goodness” is rendered “gracious” in 1 Pet. 2:3- newly converted babes in Christ taste of this gracious goodness, and it leads to repentance.

Time and again in the context of the restoration it is emphasized that God would return to His people if they returned to Him (Zech. 1:3; Mal. 3:7). And they didn't return to Him- most chose not to return to the land, and those who did for the most part did not return to their God in their hearts. The whole basis of Israel's covenant relationship with God was that if they were exiled from the land for their sins, they must repent and then God would return to them (Dt. 30:1-10). Yet God graciously states to the exiles: "I am returned unto you" (Zech. 1:16; 8:3). Here was grace indeed. Passages like Ez. 36:24-31 therefore speak as if God's grace to the exiles was effectively a new covenant- which has in essence been extended to us. Having stated the conditionality of His 'returning' to His people, and recognizing they hadn't fulfilled their part of the conditions- God all the same returns to them, such was and is His almost desperate desire for relationship with His beloved people. This is a lesson for us in our relationships with others- to continue our acceptance and 'return' to them, even if they don't fulfill their part of the deal. For this, day by day, is how our God deals not only with us but with His weak and wayward people as a whole.

It’s apparent that Judah in captivity weren’t repentant; and yet God granted them His forgiveness so that they might repent. Indeed, the Jews were bitter with God. They claimed that they were suffering unfairly as a result of their fathers’ sins (Ez. 18:2), and that Yahweh was unfair (Ez. 18:25)- when He was showing them a grace so wonderful that all that is within us fights against perceiving it! The lack of perception of God’s grace was terrible- and yet many of us have lived for decades doing just the same! Some of the comments of the Jewish religious leaders during the captivity are preserved for us in the Babylonion Talmud. It's interesting to see the development of their commentaries upon the prophets (5). Hosea clearly taught that he represented God, and Israel were likened to a prostitute, unfaithful to Him. Time and again, Hosea appeals for Israel to "return", the same Hebrew word being used about 'returning' to the land of Judah. But Israel would not. And they obviously found Hosea hard to grapple with. And so the Talmud condemns Hosea for marrying a promiscuous woman (6). By so doing they were refusing to let the prophetic word bite as it was intended to; their interpretations, like many false exposition today, was intended to justify them. And thereby they effectively condemned the God who loved them so freely. Even those who did return were impenitent. The sins of those who returned are styled "the transgression of those that had been carried away" (Ezra 9:4). Yet those who returned to the land weren't mainly the generation who had been carried away. The intended confusion is surely to suggest that those who returned commited the same sins as had led Judah into captivity a generation earlier. And Ezra comments on this fact in his subsequent prayer (Ezra 9:7).

Reasoning back from the addresses to the captives in later Isaiah, it appears they thought that Yahweh was a God who just operated in the land of Israel. The captives felt they couldn’t sing the songs of Yahweh in a Gentile land (Ps. 137). They thought that now they were outside His land and far from His temple, they were forgotten by Him (Is. 49:14,15), their cause ignored by Him (Is. 40:27) and they were “cast off” from relationship with Him (Is. 41:9). Hence Isaiah emphasizes that Yahweh is the creator and the God of the whole planet, and His presence is literally planet-wide. Likewise there is much stress in those addresses on the fact that Yahweh’s word of prophecy will come true. Remember that there had been many false prophets of Yahweh just prior to the captivity who predicted victory against Babylon and prosperity (Lam. 2:9,14; Jer. 44:15-19). And the 70 years prophecy of Jeremiah appeared to not be coming true, or at best was delayed or re-scheduled in fulfilment [even Daniel felt this, according to his desperate plea for fulfilment in Daniel 9]. And so there was a crisis of confidence in the concept of prophecy, and Yahweh’s word and prophets generally. Isaiah addressed this by stressing the nature and power of that word, and urging faith in its fulfilment and relevance.

The grace of God to the exiles is of course a foretaste of His grace to us. Time and again God speaks of the exiles in such positive language. For all that they had willingly adopted the gods of the captors, God still fondly describes them as 'Zion who dwells in Babylon' (Zech. 6:10,11). They were the Kingdom in embryo, waiting to just be transplanted from Babylon to Judah, just as we are the temple of God prepared symbolically in Heaven and waiting to be revealed on earth. Putting that grace another way, God proclaimed that despite all their idolatry and weakness in Babylon, Judah had 'paid off' their guilt for former sins by their service there (Is. 40:2). We can only marvel at God's grace, and the tragedy was that it was wasted and unperceived by them. May we do somewhat better.


(1) C.L. & E.M. Meyers, Haggai, Zechariah 1-8, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2004) p. 296.

(2) See C.L. & E.M. Meyers, Haggai, Zechariah 1-8, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2004) p. 319 for documentation.

(3) Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963).

(4) Other such examples are given at length in Norman Whybray, The Second Isaiah (Sheffield: JSOT, 1983) pp. 73,74.

(5) See H. Freedman, The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo'ed (London: Soncino Press, 1938).

(6) See Peshita 87b in the Babylonian Talmid; and H.L. Ginsberg, 'Hosea, Book of' in G. Roth and C. Wigoder, eds, Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Macmillan, 1971) Vol. 18 col. 1011.