Sermon: The Doctrine of Israel (Part Five): A Remnant of Judah
Exile, Return, and Disobedience
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Given 08-Feb-20; 75 minutes
It is a well documented fact in Mesopotamian history, that the empires of that region made a practice of what is called The Policy of Enforced Resettlement. By this phrase, The Policy of Enforced Resettlement, scholars mean that when empires like Assyria and Babylon went to war, for whatever reason it was—to punish a tributary state, to retaliate against something, or to expand their borders—they would take a large number of captives from their conquered enemies and resettle them in another part of their empire, and usually they would resettle them as far away as possible from their old home, to a place that needed laborers to cultivate the fields or build a new city or construct a new monument to the king, or whatever it happened to be.
We have records that say that this policy was practiced in the region for about 2,000 years all the way from Sumer and Ur, all the way down to the Babylonians, or the Neo-Babylonians, as they are called. Now, most of these records come from those same Mesopotamian empires so it is a little slanted, you might say, how they describe this Policy of Enforced Resettlement. They paint the picture of the policy with very vivid colors and rainbows and all kinds of nice things, you know, rabbits and whatnot. They thought this was a great policy and this kind of glowing approval for it proves the adage that history is indeed written by the victors.
The empire's scribes describe this policy as beneficial to the peoples who were relocated, depicting it as the practice of a conscientious gardener and likening the empire's captives to precious trees that needed to be uprooted and replanted in the best possible circumstances, under their thumb obviously. In an article titled "Mass Deportation: the Assyrian Resettlement Policy," Karen Radner, who is a historian from University College London, writes about this positive assessment of enforced resettlement:
Deportation can indeed be regarded as a privilege rather than a punishment. People were not made to leave on their own but did so together with their families. [It sounds like they are going to a picnic.] They were not snatched away in the heat of battle or conquest, but were chosen as the result of a deliberate selection process, often in the aftermath of a war that had very possibly reduced their original home to ruins. And when the Assyrian sources specify who was to be relocated, they named the urban elites, craftsman, specialists, and scholars. These people were usually dispatched to the Assyrian heartland to generate knowledge and wealth. Hence, by the beginning of the seventh century BC, the central Assyrian cities of Nineveh, Calhu, and Assur housed experts from all over the known world. Without them, some of the most enduring achievements of the Assyrian kings such as constructing and furnishing the magnificent palaces and temples or assembling the contents of the fabled library of Ashurbanipal would have been impossible.
Glowing, is not it? I do not know if she was trying to reflect what the Assyrian scribes were saying or not. But she takes a very positive view of this, that this was something that was ultimately beneficial.
Actually, there is a bit of such propaganda about forced relocation in the Bible. It follows the same direction, I guess you would say, of what she wrote. Let us go to II Kings 18 and we are going to read from verses 9 through 13 and then we will go down to verses 17 and 18, and then 28, 31 through 33. So we are hop, skipping, and jumping through the chapter, as we often do. This gives you a pretty good idea of what was happening at the time.
II Kings 18:9-13 Now it came to pass in the fourth year of King Hezekiah, which was the seventh year of Hoshea the son of Elah, king of Israel [and he was the last king of Israel, so it was right at that time], that Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up against Samaria and besieged it. And at the end of three years, they took it. In the sixth year of Hezekiah, that is, the ninth year of Hoshea king of Israel, Samaria was taken. Then the king of Assyria carried Israel away captive to Assyria, and put them in Halah and by the Habor, the River of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes, because they did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, but transgressed His covenant and all that Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded; and they would neither hear nor do them. And in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria [this is the man after Shalmaneser] came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them.
So now we see that the Assyrian juggernaut has moved southward from the northern kingdom of Israel and had moved down toward Judah. And it says he came against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. So it was a successful invasion. And then, of course, they came against Jerusalem.
II Kings 18:17-18 Then the king of Assyria sent the Tartan, the Rabsaris, and the Rabshakeh from Lachish, with a great army against Jerusalem, to King Hezekiah. And they went up and came to Jerusalem. When they had come up, they went and stood by the aqueduct from the upper pool, which was on the highway to the Fuller's Field. [giving us a lot of details here] And when they had called to the king, Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, Shebna the scribe, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came out to them.
So here is the setup here. They have come against all the cities of Judah and taken them. Jerusalem is the only holdout left. And so they come with this delegation to Jerusalem at the aqueduct and they are going to have a bit of a talk to see if they can work things out. Now, I want you to notice the Rabshakeh in verse 17. It says in my margin, "a title, probably chief officer." So this is a very high person in the Assyrian army at this point. Let us go to verse 28.
II Kings 18:28 [after some preliminaries] Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out with a loud voice in Hebrew [He was not speaking to Assyrian, he was speaking Hebrew.] and spoke, saying, "Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria!"
II Kings 18:31-33 "Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria, 'Make peace with me by a present [give me money] and come out to me; and every one of you eat from his own vine and every one from his own fig tree, and every one of you drink the waters of his own cistern; until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive groves and honey, that you may live and not die. But do not listen to Hezekiah, lest he persuade you, saying, "The Lord will deliver us." Has any of the gods of the nations at all delivered its land from the hand of the king of Assyria?'"
This was the propaganda I was talking about before. Rabshakeh came and told the Judeans here that, hey, give in to me, surrender, give me some money, and what we will do is we will make sure that you live pretty well. And then at some time in the near future we will take you all away to some place in the Assyrian Empire and there you will live like kings. You will have everything that you need. That was his pitch, along with a little bit of pressure at the end saying, Look, no one has survived this yet. You might as well give up right now.
I thought it was very interesting that the Rabshakeh uses the wording of the prophets—sitting under your own vine and under your own fig tree—almost as if he is claiming that the resettlement by the Assyrians would fulfill the prophecies about the Millennium. He is saying, Hey, because you do know Isaiah 5, I believe it is, tells us very specifically that God called the Assyrians to do this.
I do not know how much is involved here. I am not going to get into too much speculation, but at least this chief officer of the king here, as he is coming against Jerusalem, uses the wording, in Hebrew, against them that the prophets had used. And perhaps this is why later on in verse 37 that the king's representatives tore their clothes before reporting back to Hezekiah. They knew what was what. They were not dumb men. They knew that they were in big trouble.
We look at this and we think, wow, the gall. But you know, history records that Rabshakeh was not lying. He was maybe embellishing the truth a little bit. We might say, accentuating the positive in eliminating the negative. But records from Assyria show that in most cases the forced relocation of these kinds of people was not inordinately harsh and brutal. The Assyrians actually reserved all their cruelty, harshness, and brutality for battle and for punishment of rebel leaders. I want to read something again from Karen Radner, the historian from London:
The deportees, their labor and their abilities, were extremely valuable to the Assyrian state, and their relocation was carefully planned and organized. We must not imagine treks of destitute fugitives who were easy prey for famine and disease. The deportees were meant to travel as comfortably and safely as possible in order to reach their destination in good physical shape. [And let me just add right here that they wanted them to fit to work because they were going to make them basically slaves, forced labor.] Whenever deportations are depicted in Assyrian imperial art, men, women, and children [that is, families], were shown traveling in groups, often riding on vehicles or animals and never in bonds. Contemporary text sources support the notion that the deportees were treated well, as attested for example, in a letter from an Assyrian official to his king Tigath-Pileser III [this was in the middle of the 8th century BC], 'As for the Arameans, about whom the king, my Lord, has written to me, prepare them for their journey. I shall give them their food supplies, clothes, a water skin, a pair of shoes, and oil. I do not have my donkeys yet, but once they are available, I will dispatch my convoy.'"
So the records from contemporaneous times there in Assyria say that they took great care to bring these captives back to the land of Assyria so that they could work for them. And ultimately they wanted to assimilate them into the Assyrian Empire, so they treated them with, well, I will not say kid gloves, but they treated them nicely enough so that they would be inclined at some point to say, "Hey, it's not so bad. We're living well here in Assyria, we might as well just kind of settle in." That is what they wanted them to do.
Now do not get me wrong. I do not want to soft pedal the captivity of Israel and Judah. It was bad. It was harsh. They had to leave their land and they had suffered a great deal, but it was probably not as harsh as our imaginations have pictured it, at least for some. They were, truly, forcibly taken from their land. They were placed in an alien environment in an area that they did not know, and they were made to work for their captors until they were deemed to have successfully integrated into the empire. They were likely punished severely if their captors sniffed out any latent rebellion in them and probably any leaders of such rebellion were summarily executed.
But most of all, in both cases, that is, both the Assyrian deportation of the Israelites and the Babylonian deportation of the Jews, they would not allow them to return to their native land. They had to stay in Assyria and in Babylon. And this is why you get something like Psalm 137, and I would like to read the first six verses of that. We sing this occasionally. It is probably among the favorite hymns of many people.
Psalm 137:1-6 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, and those who plundered us requested of us mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth—if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy.
So they they had great nostalgia. It goes way beyond nostalgia, I think, for the land of their birth. They wanted to get back to, in this case, the Jews to Jerusalem. And I am sure there were many Israelites who wish to go back to Samaria and the lands that they had in the land of Israel. But as I mentioned before, the Assyrians would not let the Israelites go back. Nor would the Babylonians let the Jews go back.
So this has just been my introduction. I hope you enjoyed it!
Today, we will concentrate on the captivity and exile of the Jews (I wanted you to understand what was going on in terms of the deportation so you can kind of fit in your mind what was going on), as well as the fact that Babylon's successor, which is the Persian Empire, or the Medo-Persian Empire, reversed this resettlement policy and allowed some of the displaced peoples, not just the Jews, but other peoples that Babylon had conquered and moved, to return to their homelands. And the Jews, of course, were among these various peoples who actually resettled their homelands. We will see, at least by the end, is that this resettlement, this return, was a significant step in God's plan of salvation, making Jesus Christ's birth in the land a possibility and ultimately a reality.
Let us go to II Chronicles 36. We will read verses 11 through 21. I find this to be a kind of concise summary of what happened to the kingdom of Judah and why. We are going to be spending a fair amount of time here because I want to make sure we understand the progression of events as happened between the time of Josiah and the captivity of Israel. We are skipping ahead to the time of Zedekiah. But this will give you the end part and summarize what Judah had gone through and what God's response had been.
II Chronicles 36:11-21 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. He did evil in the sight of the Lord his God and did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke from the mouth of the Lord. And he also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear an oath by God; but he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord God of Israel. Moreover all the leaders of the priests and the people transgressed more and more, according to all the abominations of the nations, and defiled the house of the Lord which He had consecrated in Jerusalem. And the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers, rising up early and sending them, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, till there was no remedy. Therefore He brought against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or virgin, on the aged or the weak; He gave them all into his hand. And all the articles from the house of God, great and small, the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and of his leaders, all these he took to Babylon. Then he burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious possessions. And those who escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon, where they became servants to him and his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. As long as she lay desolate, she kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.
So this is the summary that the chronicler makes of the time of Judah, the kingdom of Judah, as it declined and fell. He puts the blame squarely on the king and the leaders and the priests, and of course, all the people as well who were following their lead. So God then responded by causing great destruction on Judah and the people under Nebuchadnezzar. They call him a Chaldean, they call him a Babylonian, the same people.
Notice that it says here starting in verse 15 that God had given them plenty of warnings. He had given them plenty of time to repent. But as he says in verse 16, they had mocked, despised, and scoffed at everything He did for them. There is just no respect at all. Certainly no fear of the Lord in them at all. And that just got to be so much, so bothersome to Him, and so terrible that He was just in acting against them, and Judah fell and the people died. Lots and lots of people, basically the whole nation.
Now, as we saw in the last sermon, in Ezekiel 16:46-51, God says there through the prophet that Judah's sins were far worse than Israel's, even far worse than Sodom's. He ranks them and Judah comes out on top, if you will, as being the most sinful. He says in Ezekiel 16, that Israel's heinous sins were only half as bad as those of Judah. I mean, Judah must have been a horrible place once Josiah died. In fact, He says, in comparison to Judah, Israel and Sodom were righteous. They were really, really terrible people, so far away from the righteousness of God.
As I also mentioned last time in a place or two, God suggests there that they had degenerated so far that they no longer knew the difference between right and wrong. They would just do whatever; they had no conscience and that they were perilously close to the immorality and the seared consciousness of those before the Flood. And we know that those before the Flood got exterminated down to the last eight people—just Noah and his family left.
So God was, as I said, justly acting according to the covenant. It was all laid out there what would happen. He said in those places like Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28: If you are obedient, I will give you all these wonderful blessings, and if you are disobedient, well, there is a bunch of curses that come. You choose, He says, "Choose life," choose the good one so that I can give you great blessings. But if you do not hear, if you do not obey, there is only bad things at the end of that road.
The last two verses here, 20 and 21 of II Chronicles 36, help us to transition to the next stage in their history. Notice here, "those who escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon, where they became servants [slaves] to him and his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia." So as long as Neo-Babylonia existed, the Jews in Babylon were captives and slaves. And as he says in verse 21, "to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. As long as she lay desolate, she kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years."
What we have here is the fact that the Babylonians had slain tens of thousands of Jews in battle over a period of roughly twenty years or so. Many thousands had also died during the siege of Jerusalem from famine and disease. And the small remainder of those who were left after all that mayhem and killing and what not, was taken captive and carried back to Babylon, much in the same way as we saw in the introduction about the Assyrians taking the Israelites back to Assyria.
Jeremiah tells us that a pitiful few were left in the land under a governor named Gedeliah. Just a small amount of people. The poor of the land as well as Jeremiah and Baruch and a few others. Unfortunately Gedeliah was promptly assassinated. He was the one who had been charged with ruling over these few people, but the rebels came and assassinated him. And at that point, against God's and Jeremiah's advice, the tiny population of Jews that were left in the land fled to Egypt.
So the land then lay desolate for 70 years to fulfill the number of land Sabbaths that the Israelites had not allowed their land to rest agriculturally as God had commanded them in the law. They were supposed to give, every seven years, their land a Sabbath rest. And they had not. They had used the land for their own profit and it destroyed a lot of the nutrition in the soil. So God said, fine, you treat My land like this, you are going to go away. I am going to give My land their Sabbath. And so He decreed seventy years of the land lying fallow.
If you want to to trace out some more of this, Jeremiah talks about these seventy years in Jeremiah 25, specifically in verse 11, and also in Jeremiah 29:10. So there was supposed to be about seventy years from the time that Nebuchadnezzar first came into the land of Judah till the time that the people were returned. Now I say that because when Nebuchadnezzar first came into the land of Judah, he took captives. So the captivity actually began in about 604 BC and the taking of captives did not end until about 582 BC. So that is what I meant when I said there was about twenty years there where Nebuchadnezzar and his armies kept coming through the land of Judah, and each time a wave passed through, when it receded, they took some of the Jews back to Babylon.
Let us go to II Kings 24 and we will chase this out a little bit. We will read versus 1 through 4 and then 10 through 17. And then we are going to keep on going here.
II Kings 24:1-4 [we are talking about Joachim] In his days Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up, and Joachim became his vassal for three years. Then he turned and rebelled against him. And the Lord sent against the him raiding bands of Chaldeans, bands of Syrians, bands of Moabites, and bands of the people of Ammon; He sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the Lord, which He had spoken by His servants the prophets. Surely at the commandment of the Lord this came upon Judah, to remove them from His sight because of the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he had done, and also because of the innocent blood that he had shed; for he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, which the Lord would not pardon. [This is referring to child sacrifice and other such things.]
II Kings 24:10-17 At that time [this was Jehoiachin, his son] the servants of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up against Jerusalem and the city was besieged. And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came against the city, as his servants were besieging it. Then Jehoiachin king of Judah, his mother, his servants, his princes, and his officers went out to the king of Babylon; and the king of Babylon, in the eighth year of his reign, took him prisoner. And he carried out from there all the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king's house, and he cut in pieces all the articles of gold which Solomon king of Israel had made in the temple of the Lord, as the Lord had said. Also he carried into captivity all Jerusalem: all the captains and all the mighty men of valor, ten thousand captives, and all the craftsman and smiths. None remained except the poorest people of the land. And he carried Jehoiachin captive to Babylon. The king's mother, the king's wives, his officers, and the mighty of the land he carried into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon. All the valiant men, seven thousand, and craftsman and smiths, one thousand, all who were strong and fit for war, these the king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon. Then the King of Babylon made Mattaniah, Jehoiachin's uncle, king in his place, and changed his name to Zedekiah.
Now we have gotten to the last king of Judah. Let us go to chapter 25.
II Kings 25:8-12 And in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month (which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon), Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He burned the house of the Lord and all the king's house; all the houses of Jerusalem, that is, all the houses of the great, he burned with fire. And all the army of the Chaldeans who were with the captain of the guard broke down the walls of Jerusalem all around. Then Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried away captive the rest of the people who remained in the city and the defectors who had deserted to the king of Babylon, with the rest of the multitude. But the captain of the guard left some of the poor of the land as vinedressers and farmers. [These were the ones that were left with Gedeliah.]
II Kings 25:18-21 And the captain of the guard took Seraiah the chief priest, Zephaniah the second priest, and the three doorkeepers. He also took out of the city an officer who had charge of the men of war, five men of the king's close associates who were found in the city, the chief recruiting officer of the army, who mustered the people of the land, and sixty men of the people of the land who were found in the city. [We are talking small numbers here by this time.] So Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, took these and brought them to the king of Babylon at Riblah. Then the king of Babylon struck them and put them to death at Riblah in the land of Hamath. Thus Judah was carried away captive from its own land.
One more place. Let us go to Jeremiah 52 and we will read verses 28 through 30. I know this is a lot of reading, but in these historical books there is a lot of reading to get all the details that you need.
Jeremiah 52:28-30 These are the people who Nebuchadnezzar carried away captive. [This is after all these figures are being added up here after all that has been said and done.]: in the seventh year, three thousand and twenty-three Jews; in the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar he carried away captive from Jerusalem eight hundred and thirty-two persons; in the twenty-third year of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried away captive of the Jews seven hundred and forty-five persons. All the persons were four thousand six hundred.
Those are some interesting figures. It does not seem like a whole lot, does it? That the whole captivity of Judah would be just a few thousand. Now we saw earlier in II Kings that (whoever was chronicling) said there were 10,000 plus others that went at another time. But I read all this so that we can piece together what really happened there in the captivity and the exile of Judah to Babylon.
So let me kind of summarize what we have just read:
As the seventh century BC was coming to a close, the Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar's dad and Nebuchadnezzar began to rise, and it was contested by the perennial power in the region, Egypt. It was these two superpowers, Egypt versus Babylon. Under Josiah the king—a good king—Judah foolishly supported Egypt, even though Pharaoh Neco said, "No! Don't get into this battle. God told me to tell you, don't get into this. Don't be involved." But Josiah, for some reason, did not believe him, went into battle, and died at Megiddo. His heir, Jehoiakim, thus had to pay tribute to Nebuchadnezzar because Nebuchadnezzar won that battle there in Megiddo. But Nebuchadnezzar was rising in that area. So Jehoiakim paid tribute to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
Three years later, for some reason (this is 605 BC), Jehoiakim rebelled, and Nebuchadnezzar, always willing to go to battle, retaliated, and he defeated Judah in 604 BC. This is when the first deportation happened. Some of the young nobility, including Daniel and his friends, who were later named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, were taken to Babylon as slaves and made to work for the king. So this is the first deportation of Judah.
Judeans are stubborn. Judah revolted again in 601. This is only three years later. They revolted again in 601 under Jehoiakim, same man same king, and in 597, that is four years later, Nebuchadnezzar finally got around to coming up against Jerusalem again and Jerusalem fell to him after a three month siege. Now at the beginning of that siege, Jehoiakim died, probably defending the wall or something. Who knows? He was succeeded by his teenage son, Jehoiachin, who is also called in the Bible Jeconiah or Coniah, and he lasted those three months of the siege. That is as long as his reign was and he was deposed after Nebuchadnezzar defeated Jerusalem and he was then carried away to Babylon along with, as it says in II Kings, 10,000 captives among whom was likely the prophet Ezekiel. This is in 597. At that point, Nebuchadnezzar appointed Jehoiachin's uncle named Zedekiah or Mattiniah, who was Josiah's youngest son, as king. So that was the time of the second deportation. First deportation was 604, second deportation 597.
Now against the advice of God once again, and against the advice of Jeremiah, Zedekiah stupidly rebelled again. Allying with Egypt, and of course that incurred the wrath of Nebuchadnezzar and all of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar returned in 587 BC and finished Judah for good, killing Zedekiah and his sons, destroying Jerusalem and the Temple, and slaying most of its remaining citizens. He was quite mad that he had had to come back to Jerusalem so many times to put down these rebellions. He was not in a very merciful mood. So the few that were leftover at this point were taken captive and marched to Babylon, except for those few who fled to Egypt, which you can learn about at the closing chapters of Jeremiah. That is the third deportation, in 586. I think that is where scholars mostly put the date these days.
Remember first deportation was 604. The second deportation was 597. The third deportation was 586. So already from 604 down to 586, that is 18 years, if I have done my mental math correctly.
Now, a small number of captives were taken to Babylon in about 582 or 581. This is one that people do not know very much about. Although it is there at the end of Jeremiah 52, it is in one of those figures. What scholars believe happened in 582 or 581 BC, is that Nebuchadnezzar sent his armies back once again to retaliate for Gedeliah's murder. It might not have been a big force because there was not a huge number of rebels left in the land. But they came back, they defeated whatever resistance was in Judah at the time, and they made a small fourth deportation, just a few hundred people.
So there were actually four deportations of Jews from Jerusalem and Judea, not to mention the fact that there was actually a far bigger deportation of Jews when Israel fell during the days of Hezekiah. Remember, I mentioned this last time, that the Assyrian king came down and lay siege to all the fortified cities of Judah and conquered them, and all that was left was Jerusalem. So he took all those captives of Judah and Simeon and Benjamin and those other ones that were in the outlying cities, and took them away to the cities of the Medes and those other places that were mentioned there. So a great many of the Jews actually left with the Israelites back in 722, 721 BC.
So that is the basic summary of the deportations of Judah.
Now I realize that if you compare the numbers that were given in II Kings 24, and the ones that are given in Jeremiah 52, they do not match up. One says 10,000 this and 7,000 that and the other one says that all told there was 4,600 or something like that. That does not match up. And scholars really do not know why they do not match up. The discrepancy is probably due to different counting methods or a different perspective on how they should count these various people.
Some people think that one counted men only (the smaller number in Jeremiah 52), and the other one counted total people—men, women, and children. Others think that because of the phrasing in Jeremiah 52, probably in verse 28 or so where it mentions so many Jews, that they were counting just Jews and not Levites and not Benjaminites who might have been there. The other one is that there was some other reason that for the discrepancy. We could call it using today's terminology, fog of war. That it was just very hard to know how many were being taken, how many had been killed, and so there were maybe multiple records that some may have not had full access to or what have you. They just cannot tell us exactly how many captives there were. But you know that there were many thousands, at the very least, that were taken back to Babylon.
Seventy years pass, the Jews are in Babylon for that time. Let us go to Ezra 1. Now, remember I mentioned that when Neo-Babylonia was finally conquered by the Medo-Persians, they reversed the policy that had been longstanding in the Middle East about all these enforced relocations. I do not know why, necessarily, they reversed the policy. They were a Mesopotamian power. They had a history in the empires that had come before them of doing the same thing. But for some reason Persia did not do it. They have been given a great deal of credit for reversing this policy, and you know, they are more humanitarian than the Babylonians and Assyrians and others, Sumerians, the people from Ur or whatever who had come before them.
I have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps one of the factors is that God prophesied through Isaiah about Cyrus king of Persia, and told there in the prophecies about the work that Cyrus would do. That he would be a kind of messiah for God and he would return the people. Now we know that Cyrus was informed of this. Cyrus knew about these prophecies and it could be—this is total speculation, total thinking off the top of my head—that this got to him and he decided to make it a policy that he would be very kind, very magnanimous, he would have a policy about religion that would allow many religions to coexist side by side. Kind of like, let us say, a precursor of our freedom of religion. And I mentioned before that it was not only the people of Judah that were sent back to their lands and their temples rebuilt, but there were other peoples that he found within the Persian Empire that he allowed to do the same thing. So he was doing this as a universal policy and God made sure that the Jews were included in it.
Ezra 1:1-5 Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation through all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying [Notice it was the Lord stirred him up. He could very easily have used the chapters in Isaiah about Cyrus to cause this change of heart.], Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem. [By the way, just remember that Daniel was still around at this point, very influential man in that kingdom.] And whoever is left in any place where he dwells, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem. Then the heads of the fathers' houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, with all those whose spirits God had moved, arose to go up and build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem.
Let us drop down to chapter 2.
Ezra 2:64-67 The whole assembly together [these are the ones that returned] was forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty, besides their male and female servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred and thirty-seven; and they had two hundred men and women singers. Their horses were seven hundred and thirty-six, their mules two hundred and forty-five, their camels four hundred and thirty-five [this pretty meticulous record keeping], their donkeys six thousand seven hundred and twenty.
With all those figures, we can get an idea that these are fairly exact. Somebody was there with their clay tablet and stylus and they were writing all these things down and got it down to the very person, the very servant, the very mules, or whatever. So that is how many came back under both Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel. So that is about 50,000 Jews, Levites, and Benjaminites who returned under these two men and later, if we would go there to chapter 8 (we will not read it), but there were a few more thousand that came with Ezra, when Ezra came back.
This was a rather top heavy lot since a good percentage of those who decided to return were of the priestly families. Now when the priests got back there, they had a good job, they could be priests and they could do all the priestly things and they could have leadership and they could have the respect of the people. What group did not come were the regular Levites who had all the service of the temple. They had all the hard jobs, they had all the yucky jobs. They did a lot of things that nobody else really wanted to do. So they did not want to return to those traditional menial jobs and so they did not come back. Proportionately, if you look at the names and numbers and such, Ezra brought back many more regular Levites. And my guess is that word had gotten back to Babylon that the workforce of the Levites was pretty thin. They needed more help to keep up the Temple.
Let us summarize this. The return began in 538 B C under Sheshbazzar. Another one occurred about eight years later in 530 BC under Zerubbabel. We usually just think about the one under Zerubbabel, but there was one before that was a little bit smaller. Finally there was one under Ezra in 458 or 457 BC. So you know between 530 and 458 is 70 years or so. That is a long time. A smaller number probably accompanied Nehemiah in about 445 or 444 BC. So that is another 20-25 years after that, although the Bible does not mention any concrete numbers about how many came back with Nehemiah. The Temple was finished during these times in 515 BC, which happens to be the same time that the prophets Haggai and Zechariah had their work. The wall around Jerusalem was rebuilt by Nehemiah in 52 days once he returned to Jerusalem in 444.
So what we have here, I want to just show you this. In 538 we have the first return, 530 we have the second return. The Temple is completed in 515 and then there is a period of about 50 years or so until Ezra comes in 457, and then another small return under Nehemiah in 445 or 444 and that is when the wall was built around Jerusalem. Malachi, which is the last book written in the Old Testament as far as we know, was written after Nehemiah. Perhaps as late as 430 or 425 BC. And that is where the Old Testament abruptly stops. We do not have any history after that of what happened in Judea until the time of Christ.
All this is well and good. It is good information. You need to know this history. But what is interesting about this time is that the biblical authors of this time provide substantial evidence that the Jews were sliding back into their old habits already. Let us go to Haggai. Remember, I said his ministry took place when the house of the Lord was being built. So this would have been 520 down to 515.
Haggai 1:2-11 "Thus speaks the Lord of hosts [Haggai says], saying: 'This people says, "The time has not come, the time that the Lord's house should be built."'" [So this is immediately before the building of the Temple.] Then the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying, "Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to lie in ruins?" Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: "Consider your ways! You have sown much, and bring in little; you eat, but do not have enough; you drink, but you are not filled with drink; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and he who earns wages, earns wages to put into a bag with holes." Thus says the Lord of hosts: "Consider your ways! Go up to the mountains and bring wood and build the temple, that I may take pleasure in it and be glorified," says the Lord. "You look for much, but indeed it came to little, and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why?" says the Lord of hosts. "Because of My house that is in ruins, while every one of you runs to his own house. Therefore the heavens above you withhold the dew, and the earth withholds its fruit. For I called for a drought on the land and the mountains, on the grain and the new wine and the oil, on whatever the ground brings forth, on men and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.
Haggai 2:14 [This is the result, the conclusion.] Then Haggai answered and said, "'So is this people, and so is this nation before Me,' says the Lord, 'and so is every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean.'
He had just said that they were unclean in verse. 13. He is saying the people were unclean as well. They were profane. They were not in any way like Him.
So, Haggai here scolds the people for their selfishness. They are building and furnishing their own houses and neglecting God's house. And for their neglect God had sent them drought. He wanted to diminish their crops, their livestock, their livelihood. It was the same thing He had done to Israel, as we see in Amos 4. He says there, they did not return to Me. It seems, like their ancestors, they did not make the connection between the significant natural disasters they were having and their own sinfulness. Now, fortunately at this point, they were close enough to the return that they changed. They did build the house of the Lord. They finished it in a short time after they were corrected.
But that is not all. Let us go to Zechariah just across the page here. The book starts with a warning, a very, what would you call it, stern warning. A stern call to repentance. He says:
Zechariah 1:2 "The Lord has been very angry with your fathers. Therefore say to them, 'Thus says the Lord of hosts: "Return to Me," says the Lord of hosts, "and I will return to you," says the Lord of hosts.
Notice all the Lord of hosts. When God says the Lord of hosts, He means He is the Lord of armies. He is coming to punish. He is showing His strength.
Zechariah 1:3-6 "Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets preached, saying, 'Thus says the Lord of hosts: "Turn now from your evil ways and your evil deeds."' But they did not hear nor heed Me," says the Lord. "Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? Yet surely My words and My statutes, which I commanded My servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? So they returned and said: 'Just as the Lord of hosts determined to do to us, according to our ways and according to our deeds, so He has dealt with us.'"
This is very similar to how Haggai starts his prophecy. Remember they worked about the same time. Haggai and Zechariah both call upon the people to repent, to put their focus on God, to remember what their fathers had done and what had happened to their fathers because of their disobedience.
Now, a similar warning appears in Zechariah 7. We will not go there. That one is centered around their hypocritical fasting practices. They wanted to know if they should fast in this month or in this month, and God says, "Guys, you're getting it all wrong. What I require is obedience." So God has to remind them. It is the commandments and the statutes they need to keep. He was not really interested in their empty rituals, their feigned piety. It was that kind of behavior, He reminds them, that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem just 70 plus years before.
Ezra 9:5-11 At the evening sacrifice I arose from my fasting; and having torn my garment and my robe, I fell on my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God. And said: "O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens. [This is just 80 years later or so after they returned.] Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been very guilty, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been delivered into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plunder, and to humiliation, as it is this day. And now for a little while grace has been shown from the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, and to give us a peg in His holy place, that our God may enlighten our eyes and give us a measure of revival in our bondage. For we were slaves. Yet our God did not forsake us in our bondage; but He extended mercy to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to revive us, to repair the house of our God, to rebuild its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem. And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments, which You commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, 'The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land, with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from one and to another with their impurity.'
The prophet here castigates the returned Jews for their (I will not read this), intermarrying with pagans, the people of the land who were pagan to the core. And he also talks there, as we saw in verse 10, that they were once again forsaking His commandments, not too long after all that had happened to Jerusalem. He says in verse 13, "And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, since you our God have punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us such deliverance as this." He said, God had gone lightly on them for as bad as it was. And here they were, these remnants of the Jews, doing the same exact things that their fathers had done. And should they expect to be treated any less than as their fathers were treated? Because they were doing the same sins, starting down that road again.
Nehemiah 13:10-12 I also realized [Nehemiah writes here] that the portions for the Levites had not been given them; for each of the Levites and the singers who did the work had gone back to his field. [He was not getting any income so he needed to do something. So he went out to farm.] So I contended with the rulers, and said, "Why is the house of God forsaken?" And I gathered them together and set them in their place. Then all Judah brought the tithe of the grain and the new wine and the oil of the storehouse.
Nehemiah 13:15-18 In those days, I saw people in Judah treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and loading donkeys with wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them about the day on which they were selling provisions. Men of Tyre dwelt there also, who brought in fish and all kinds of goods, and sold them on the Sabbath to the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said to them, "What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers do thus, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring added wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath."
Nehemiah rebukes the people for their failure to tithe, first of all, and then to keep the Sabbath. They were buying and selling and doing all their work in the fields and bringing it in to the warehouses and such on the Sabbath day! And he reminds them, has to very sternly remind them, that those things were the reasons why Jerusalem fell 140 or so years before.
Let us go to Malachi. I am going to every one of these prophets that were given to Judah after their return. I hope you are beginning to see what is going on here. The same thing is heating up as it had before.
Malachi 1:6-8 "A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am the Father, where is My honor? And if I am a Master, where is My reverence? says the Lord of hosts to you priests who despise My name. Yet you say, 'In what way have we despised Your name?' [They were clueless.] You offer defiled food on My altar, but say, 'In what way have we defiled You?' By saying, 'The table [that is, the altar] of the Lord is contemptible.' And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you favorably?" says the Lord.
Malachi 2:7-9 "For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi," says the Lord of hosts. "Therefore I also have made you contemptible and base before all the people, because you have not kept My ways but have shown partiality in the law."
Malachi 3:8-9 "Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, 'In what way have we robbed You?' In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed Me, even this whole nation."
Malachi 3:13-15 "Your words have been harsh against Me," says the Lord, "yet you say, 'What have we spoken against You?' You have said, 'It is useless to serve God; what profit is it that we have kept His ordinance, and that we have walked as mourners before the Lord of hosts? So now we call the proud blessed, for those who do wickedness are raised up; they even tempt God and go free.'"
Malachi, the last of them, serves up here a whole slew of sins that the people of Judah—Jews, Levites, Benjaminites—were committing. From offering profane and blemished offerings to a corrupt priesthood, to cheating each other, to divorcing their wives (which is the part I skipped over that is also in chapter 3), to stealing God's tithes, and to speaking contemptuously against God.
Question: Had the people of Judah changed? Even after going through destruction, death, captivity, exile, return, building the Temple, building the wall, seeing all the things that God was doing. Have they changed? Not at all. They were the same as their fathers. Just as carnal as all their ancestors who had suffered God's wrath. They had not learned the lesson. They had not truly repented.
We have been in the Old Testament for many sermons here. Let us go to Matthew the 23rd chapter. Because the greatest Prophet of them all makes a comment about these people and their descendants. We are going to read verses 29 through 39. This puts the final stamp on it because this is the great Judge. This is the one whom all must stand before and as He was watching and observing His fellow Jews, this is what He concluded.
Matthew 23:29-39 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.' Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers' guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in the synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more until you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!'"
They will not see Him again until they recognize Him as Messiah.
Jesus confirms the condemnation of this set of Jews and their descendants. He condemns here, He rebukes the Pharisees who represent the whole nation. And what He says here, in essence, is that you are no better than your forefathers. You will suffer their fate shortly, which they did in 70 AD when the Romans came and destroyed Jerusalem, killed many of them, took some into slavery. It was a repeat of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
So we see that after 500 years of being back in the Land, the Jews were once again ready to taste the wrath of God for their sinfulness, for their desecration of the covenant, and for their rejection and murder of their Messiah, the very Son of God. They, indeed, as Jesus said, filled up, or topped off, if you will, the measure of their fathers' guilt. They had to suffer God's extreme wrath, in essence, as a result of their whole lineage's sins.
Let us conclude with two scriptures here, which we will look at back to back.
Luke 2:4-7 Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
John 1:9-11 That was the true Light which gives light [He is speaking of the Word, which we know to be Jesus Christ.] to every man who comes into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.
So one of the few good things that the return from exile accomplished is that the Son of God was born of the descendants of David, in the town of Bethlehem, the town of Boaz and Ruth, the town of Jesse and David, fulfilling the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament. He was able to grow up and develop in Nazareth, in Galilee, in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, conduct His ministry throughout the land of Israel, and die as a sacrifice for sin just outside Jerusalem.
All these things that He did were done among the people of Israel, to whom He was sent to make a witness. The return of the Jews, which we have been talking about today, set up the fulfilling of these prophecies and the ministry of our Savior. And once the church began and was established by Christ and the apostles, God sent the remnant of Israel, the people of Judah, away again into exile. It has been that way for pretty much the last 2,000 years. And that brings up the question: What part does Israel play in the New Testament era?