Judah was captive in Babylon for 70 years, about 605-536 B.C., until Persia conquered Babylon. Cyrus, the first king of Persia, permitted the people of Judah and all others who so wished to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple of God. During the time of the Greek Empire (333-63 B.C.), many Jews settled in Alexandria, Egypt, and absorbed Greek culture and thought. They could hardly speak Hebrew anymore, and so their Scriptures were translated into Greek (the Septuagint). Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek king of Syria, persecuted Judah so mercilessly that it led to the Maccabaean revolt. They defeated the Syrian armies and established their independence for about 100 years. In 63 B.C. Rome conquered the Greeks and subjucated Judea again.
The decree of king Cyrus of Persia
Even before the fall of Jerusalem, Isaiah prophesied that the Lord would summon Cyrus by name and subdue nations before him. Then Cyrus would "rebuild my city and set my exiles free," and order the foundations of the temple to be laid.
Unlike the kings of Assyria and Babylon, Cyrus was a humane ruler who did not believe in deporting conquered nations. In the first year of his reign, he issued a proclamation, "The Lord, the God of heaven....has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you....let him go up...." He returned to the Jews all the holy articles brought out of their temple to Babylon, and ordered all survivors to provide siver and gold for the temple.
The first return of the exiles
Sheshbazzar, who acted as the governor, led a company of almost 50,000 Israelites of all 12 tribes to Jerusalem. After they had settled in their towns, they rebuilt the temple altar, offered sacrifices, and celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles according to the law of Moses.
Zerubbabel, grandson of king Jehoiachin of Judah, and Jeshua, son of Jehozadak the high priest laid the foundation of the temple. Zerubbabel, of the royal line of David, did not return as king, but was later appointed governor by Cyrus. Due to opposition from the surrounding non-Jewish people, their plans were frustrated "during the entire reign of Cyrus....and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia."
The prophets Haggai and Zechariah stepped in and told the Jews to continue building the temple. When the governor and his officials complained to Darius, he confirmed the decree of Cyrus, and in addition ordered that the work must be financed out of the royal treasury. The temple was completed in the 6th year of king Darius and dedicated. Then in the first month of the next year, the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were kept as Moses had prescribed.
The second return of the exiles
Some 60 years later, in the 7th year of king Artaxerxes, Ezra the priest and almost 2,000 Israelites set out for Jerusalem. Among them were as many Levites and temple servants as he could find. Ezra's mission was to teach the law of God and to restore temple service to the level prescribed by David. Artaxerxes gave gifts of silver and gold for the temple, and ordered the treasurers of the province to provide Ezra with whatever else he asked.
When Ezra reached Jerusalem he found that the people, priests, Levites and rulers had freely intermarried with their idolatrous neighbours. As God had forbidden this practice and warned them over and over against it, Ezra called all Israel together. They repented of their disobedience and covenanted to put these foreign wives away, before they themselves again are led astray into idolatry.
The third return of the exiles
In the 20th year of the reign of Artaxerxes, Nehemiah heard that Jerusalem's walls and gates remained unrepaired. He obtained permission from the king to rebuild and fortify the city, and he established civil authority under his governorship. With him went army officers and cavalry.
Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, he urged the Jews, priests, nobles and officials to end this state of disgrace by rebuilding the city. He then directed the work and the gates and wall were built in sections: the Sheep Gate, Fish Gate, Old Gate, Valley Gate, Dung Gate, Fountain Gate, Water Gate, Horse Gate, East Gate and Inspection Gate.
Old-time enemies of the Jews, eg. the Moabites and Ammonites, now possessed the land, and were bitterly opposed to the rebuilding of the wall. From start to finish, their opposition through ridicule, discouragement and intimidation hampered the work. At the end, they mobilized their armies and Nehemiah divided his men into groups of fighters and builders. Finally the wall and gates were finished and Jerusalem was again a fortified city. The prophet Malachi lived and worked at this time.
On the first day of the 7th month all Israel gathered together in Jerusalem. For the 7 days of the Feast of Tabernacles, Ezra read and explained the law of God every day. The people repented of their sins and vowed to be obedient to the Lord, the God of Israel. Then Nehemiah brought one tenth of the population into the city to live, and organized it's government and the temple service. After a brief return to Persia, he found that the Israelites had neglected the priests and Levites so that temple worship had ceased. He rectified the situation and ordered the doors of the gates to be shut during the Sabbath, so that no trading could take place. He remained governor for the rest of his long life.
This period marks the end of Old Testament history and prophecy. Now follows the so-called "400 years of silence," until the beginning of the New Testament in about 5 B.C. For the history of Jerusalem during this time, we have to turn to the non-canonical books of the Apocrypha.
1. Isaiah 44:28-45:13
2. Ezra 1:2-8
3. Ezra 6:17; 8:35; Acts 26:7; Luke 22:30
4. 1 Chronicles 3:17-19
5. Haggai 1:1; Zechariah 3:1
6. Ezra 4:5
7. Ezra 5-6
8. Ezra 7-8
9. Ezra 9-10
10. Nehemiah 1-2
11. Nehemiah 3
12. Nehemiah 4-6
13. Nehemiah 8-12
14. Nehemiah 13, Halley p. 236
1. Halley, H.H. Halley's Bible Handbook, Michigan, U.S.A.: Regency Reference Library, 1965.
2. Thompson, F.C. The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible (N.I.V.), Michigan, U.S.A.: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1983.
3. Unger, M.C. and Larson, G.H. The Hodder Bible Handbook, London, England : Hodder and Stoughton, 1984.
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, International Bible Society, 1978.
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