The Return from Captivity
The Jews had been in captivity in Babylon for seventy years. During this time some of them were allowed lands and houses of their own, and a few had become wealthy. Most of them, however, were slaves and were treated with cruelty. They were made to work hard, were often beaten severely, and many were put to death. Nearly all those who were made captive had died, and we may well imagine how their children longed for the time to come when they should return to Jerusalem and live in the land of their fathers. Cyrus was now king of Persia. The Lord stirred up his spirit so that he made a proclamation in which he said: "The Lord has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem."
The proclamation called upon all the Jews in Babylon to go to Jerusalem and there build the temple of the Lord, and also called upon the people of Persia to help them by giving them silver and gold and cattle and goods and free-will offerings of all kinds. Cyrus even brought all the vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple and counted them out, to the number of five thousand, four hundred, and gave them to Zerubbabel, a prince of Judah, who was going to Jerusalem with his people, that the vessels might again be placed in the temple of the Lord.
So the Jews, to the number of about fifty thousand, marched back to Jerusalem, led by Zerubbabel. When they reached the city they found it in ruins, just as Nebuchadnezzar had left it. The temple had been burned, the houses were destroyed, and the walls were broken down. The first thing which the people did was to build an altar unto the Lord and offer burnt offerings upon it, morning and evening.
Then they set to work to rebuild the temple. They hired laborers from Tyre to cut down cedars from Lebanon and bring them to Jerusalem, and gave the laborers meat and drink. They also paid money to the carpenters and masons who worked upon the temple. When the stones were laid the priests and Levites played upon trumpets and' cymbals. The people shouted and gave praise to God because the building of the temple was started. But there were some old people who wept and mourned because they remembered the wonderful temple which stood there when they were children.
The Samaritans, who worshiped idols, though they pretended to worship God, came to Zerubbabel and said to him: "Let us build with you, for we serve the same God." But Zerubbabel told them: "We will have nothing to do with you. We will build the house of the Lord ourselves." This made the Samaritans angry and they did all they could to hinder the Jews in their work of building the temple.
When Cyrus died, Artaxerxes became king of Persia. The Samaritans wrote him a letter in which they said: "If you allow these Jews to build this city of Jerusalem and set up these walls again, they will rebel as they did in the old time and no more pay toll and tribute."
Artaxerxes searched the records and found that the Jews had been a rebellious people in former days, so he wrote a letter to the Samaritans saying: "Command the Jews in my name, to cease building the temple." This order the Samaritans hastened to carry to the Jews and then the building of the temple was stopped so long as Artaxerxes was king. The people turned their attention to building houses for themselves.
Artaxerxes died and Darius became king of Persia. The Lord sent prophets to the people of Jerusalem, who told them to leave off building their own houses and start again to build the temple of the Lord. So the temple was started again, and again the Samaritans troubled the people of Jerusalem and wrote a letter to Darius, the same as they had done to Artaxerxes. But this time they met with no success, for Darius answered that they must not only leave Jerusalem alone, but that they must give the Jews young bullocks and rams for their burnt offerings, and wheat and oil for the priests. Darius also said that some of the tribute money which the Samaritans had been paying to him should now be paid to the Jews.
The Samaritans were afraid to disobey the king. They stopped troubling the Jews, and gave them bullocks and rams and wheat and oil as Darius had commanded them. So the Jews went on building their beautiful temple until it was quite finished. Then they placed in it all the gold vessels which they had brought back with them from captivity, and dedicated the temple to the Lord.
From this time on the Jews had no trouble with their enemies. They went on building their houses, and cultivating their fields and working their vine-yards, and worshiping in their temple. They were not serving the Lord, however, as faithfully as they should, for many of them had married the heathen women of the nations around them, which the Lord had commanded them not to do.
There was a Jew still living in Babylon, named Ezra. He was a priest and teacher, and learned in the laws of Moses. He begged the king of Babylon to let him go to Jerusalem and teach his people their own laws that they might serve God more faithfully. The king agreed to this and loaded Ezra and his companions with many costly gifts of gold and silver for the temples and the priests.
After a long journey the company came to Jerusalem, and Ezra gave the presents to the priests and Levites to be placed in the temple. When he heard how the men of Israel had married heathen wives he was grieved and sat down in great distress. Then he prayed to the Lord to deliver the people from their transgressions.
Word was sent throughout all the land of Judah for the people to come together. If any one did not come inside of three days, he should have his goods and his cattle and everything he had taken away from him. All the people came inside of three days, and gathered near the temple to hear what Ezra had to say. They were trembling with fear of the anger of the Lord. At the same time a great rain was falling and the people were wet to their skins.
Ezra called out to the people: "You have broken God's law, and taken heathen wives. You must put away the strange women, and do as the Lord commanded you." The people answered: "We will do as you say, but we cannot stand always in the rain. Let those who have offended come to the judgment." Then the people departed, and those who had strange wives came to Ezra to be judged.
Ezra and the judges sat for three months, deciding each man's case, as he came before them. All who had heathen wives confessed their sins and promised to send their wives away. Then Ezra told all the people what they should do to keep the favor of the Lord.