A Time to Build Sermon Series on Nehemiah
The First Group Returned Under Zerubbabel’s Leadership
In 539 b.c., the Persians and Medes under King Cyrus defeated the Babylonians in a fierce battle for world domination. Just as the prophet Daniel had predicted, the Babylonians were so soundly defeated that the capital Babylon opened its city gates to the Persians without a fight.
Like the Babylonians, the Persians adopted a wise policy of incorporating captured exiles into the society of the nation to which they were deported. These captives were given the right to rebuild their lives despite being exiled to a strange, foreign land. They had the right to secure personal employment, hold property, build homes, and start businesses. Of course, this policy strengthened the nations of Babylon and Persia both economically and militarily. But the Persian king Cyrus went a step further.
One year after his conquest of Babylon (538 b.c.), King Cyrus proclaimed himself as the Liberator of the People. He allowed any exile who wished to return to his or her homeland to do so. Among those released were the Jews who had been taken captive at the fall of Jerusalem in 586 b.c. At this first release, Cyrus appointed Zerubbabel governor over Judah and the returning exiles. Almost 50,000 exiles were released to return to their homeland in Judah. When they arrived, the very first work undertaken by Zerubbabel was the building of an altar to offer sacrifices to the Lord. Soon thereafter, he and the returning exiles undertook the construction of the temple. However, opposition soon arose from the enemies of the Israelites, those of surrounding tribes and peoples who did not want to see Jerusalem and the temple rebuilt. The opposition was successful in stopping the work for a number of years. But in 520 b.c., the building of the temple was resumed. It was completed four years later (516 b.c.). But, tragically, these first returnees under Zerubbabel soon drifted back into apostasy. Just as their fathers had done, they too turned away from the Lord, committing sin after sin.
The Second Group Returned Under Ezra’s Leadership: About 80 years after the first exiles returned to Judah, Ezra secured permission from the Persian king Artaxerxes to lead a second and smaller band of exiles back to Jerusalem. It was the year 458 b.c., and Ezra’s purpose for returning to Jerusalem was to carry out spiritual and religious reforms, to stir a revival among the new nation of Israel. Revival and reformation were desperately needed because of the people’s wickedness. They had slipped and turned away from the Lord. In stating his purpose for returning, Ezra clearly says that he had prepared his heart, that he was determined to study and obey the law of the Lord and to teach the law and commandments of God to the people. Only about 1,800 Jewish exiles chose to return with Ezra. Leading the small band of exiles, he and they struck out and traveled over 900 miles, reaching Jerusalem some four months later (458 b.c.).