By Tim Sullivan


The historical books of the Old Testament tell a story on more than one level. Not only do they chronicle the story of the Children of Israel but they are also "a shadow of things to come" (Col. 2:17). In my book, In the Power of His Might, the chapter "Between the Red Sea and the River Jordan" demonstrates that the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt models a sinner’s escape from the kingdom of darkness. The Promised Land represents his new life in Christ. But as every Bible student knows, the Israelites did not live "happily ever after" in the Land of Canaan. The ten northern tribes were conquered by the Assyrians. The people of the southern tribes were carried off to Babylon until the Persians allowed them to resettle their homeland in an event sometimes referred to as the second exodus. What does the second exodus represent to Christians living today?

The entire saga of the Promised Land from Joshua to Nehemiah (the last book of history in the Bible) spans about one thousand years. In 1408 BC, the walls of Jericho fell (these dates are cited from BibleWorks ®). In 1011 BC, David was anointed king. Less than 300 years later, the Assyrians defeated the northern tribes. In 586 BC, the armies of Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and brought the survivors captive to Babylon. Less than fifty years later, in 538 BC, Babylon was conquered by the Persians. Two years later, the Hebrew exodus back to the Promised Land began. Exactly seventy years after the temple was destroyed, it was rebuilt.

The Babylonian Captivity

Proverbs 26:2 says, "the curse causeless shall not come." It was never the power of their enemies that caused the Jews’ demise. The Jews defeated themselves by reason of their sins.

2 Chronicles 36:14-16:
Moreover all the chief of the priests, and the people, transgressed very much after all the abominations of the heathen; and polluted the house of the LORD which he had hallowed in Jerusalem.
15 And the LORD God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place:
16 But they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remedy.

"God is not mocked," says Galatians 6:7, "for whatsover a man soweth, that shall he also reap." The sins of the Hebrews reaped seventy years of captivity.

2 Chronicles 36:17-21:
Therefore he [God] brought upon them the king of the Chaldees, who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion upon young man or maiden, old man, or him that stooped for age: he gave them all into his hand.
18 And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king, and of his princes; all these he brought to Babylon.
19 And they burnt the house of God, and brake down the wall of Jerusalem, and burnt all the palaces thereof with fire, and destroyed all the goodly vessels thereof.
20 And them that had escaped from the sword carried he away to Babylon; where they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia:
21 To fulfil the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths: for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfil threescore and ten years.

Babylon was conquered by the Persian emperor Cyrus. This king had been foretold by name 200 years earlier in the prophecies of Isaiah.

Isaiah 44:28:
That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid.

King Cyrus (600 BC to 527 BC) was not a believer; "I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me" says Isaiah 45:4. Still, he was instrumental to God’s plan. Cyrus promoted a policy of religious freedom for the sake of political unity. He felt it was in his best interest to allow the Hebrews to return to their homeland. 2 Chronicles ends and Ezra begins with his famous decree:

Ezra 1:2-3:
Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The LORD God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
3 Who is there among you of all his people? 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 the God,) which is in Jerusalem.

The books of Ezra, Esther and Nehemiah (in that order) span the final years of Old Testament history and recall the history of the Jews under Persian jurisdiction. This era witnessed four kings – Cyrus, Darius, Ahasuerus, and Artaxerxes – and four prophets, Daniel, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

The Return under Zerubbabel

Just as the Hebrews’ exile from Jerusalem occurred in three stages, so did their return. The first mission, led by Zerubbabel, was to rebuild the House of God that the Babylonians had destroyed.

Ezra 1:5:
Then rose up the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, with all them whose spirit God had raised, to go up to build the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem.

This first company back to Judah was led by Zerubbabel ("Zorobabel" in the genealogies of Matthew 1 and Luke 3). Zerubbabel was the grandson of Jehoiachin, second to last of the Judean kings. Ezra 2 gives an accounting of this group.

Ezra 2:1:
Now these are the children of the province that went up out of the captivity, of those which had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away unto Babylon, and came again unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city;

Their first task was to "build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings thereon" (3:2). They sought God’s protection, "for fear was upon them because of the peoples of those countries" (v. 3). After taking some time to settle in, the construction of the Temple began.

Ezra 3:8:
Now in the second year of their coming unto the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, began Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and the remnant of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all they that were come out of the captivity unto Jerusalem; and appointed the Levites, from twenty years old and upward, to set forward the work of the house of the LORD.

Notice that it was only "the remnant" who returned. In the second exodus, only a portion of the Jews living in Babylon chose to return to their homeland. Most were content to stay in Babylon and attend synagogue. From the many who call themselves "believers," there are always just a few who believe.

It was a great day of celebration for young and old when the foundation of the house was complete.

Ezra 3:11b-13:
... And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.
12 But many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy:
13 So that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people: for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the noise was heard afar off.

In every movement of God there is both "a great door and effectual" and "many adversaries" (1 Cor. 16:9). In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we read much about the opposition facing the builders.

Ezra 4:4-5:
Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building,
5 And hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.

At least temporarily, the evildoers achieved their goal.

v. 24:
Then ceased the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem. So it ceased unto the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.

Ezra 5 records the efforts of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to intercede on behalf of the Jews before the Persian king. They urged the king to remember the decree of Cyrus. Darius not only reinstated the work, he also provided a generous subsidy.

The books of Haggai and Zechariah reveal another obstacle to the work as well. By and large the Jews had lost interest in the project. They were busy trying to improve their own situation. Haggai rebuked them saying, "Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your cieled houses, and this house lie waste?" (Hag. 1:4). Others were hesitant to work because they feared an invasion of their yet unwalled city. Zechariah prophesied that the LORD "will be unto her [Jerusalem] a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her" (Zech. 2:5).

Zechariah 4:6:
Then he answered and spake unto me, saying, This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts.

The workers were revived. The house of God was completed in 516 BC, exactly seventy years after Solomon’s temple was destroyed.

Ezra 6:14:
And the elders of the Jews builded, and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they builded, and finished it, according to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the commandment of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia.

The Return Under Ezra

A sixty-year gap separates Ezra 6 and 7. Here the events of the book of Esther fit into Bible history, during the reign of King Ahasuerus. Finally, in chapter 7, we are introduced to Ezra, the priest who led the second group of exiles back to Jerusalem. His mission: to furnish the house of God with vessels of honor, in both the literal and figurative sense.

In the seventh year of King Artaxerxes, the king of Persia gave Ezra leave to go to Jerusalem with "all the silver and gold that thou canst find in all the province of Babylon, with the freewill offering of the people, and of the priests, offering willingly for the house of their God" (v. 16). He further pledged that "whatsoever more shall be needful for the house of thy God" would be provided "out of the king’s treasure house" (v. 20). How mightily God can move "when a man’s ways please the Lord" (Prov. 16:7). Such a man was Ezra.

Ezra 7:10:
For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.

When Ezra saw that his traveling party included "none of the sons of Levi" (8:15), he sent for "ministers for the house of God" (v. 17) and "by the good hand of our God upon us" (v. 18) they were provided. After some days of prayer and fasting, they began their journey. Though heavy-laden with treasures, Ezra would not request a military escort. His faith is a measuring-rod to all who claim to trust in God.

Ezra 8:22:
For I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way: because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him.

Ezra was not disappointed in his expectations. "The hand of our God was upon us," says verse 31, "and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy, and of such as lay in wait by the way."

Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Ezra heard a disturbing report. "The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations" (Ezra 9:1). The human vessels of the priesthood were too contaminated for holy use.

Ezra assembled "every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel" (v. 4), and led them in a heart-wrenching prayer of confession and repentance. "O my God," he said, "I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens" (v. 6). He acknowledged that "all that is come upon us for our evil deeds, and for our great trespass." In his mercy, God had not only "punished us less than our iniquities deserve," but "hast given us such deliverance as this," allowing them to return to Jerusalem (v. 13). And yet they still held on to the very sins that had condemned them to captivity! "Behold, we are before thee in our trespasses," he cried, "for we cannot stand before thee because of this" (v. 15).

Ezra stood before the people and cried, "Now therefore make confession unto the LORD God of your fathers, and do his pleasure: and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange wives" (Ezra 10:11). The congregation answered him saying, "As thou hast said, so must we do" (v. 12).

The Return Under Nehemiah

The third and last stage of the return from exile occurred "in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king" (Neh. 2:1), thirteen years after Ezra’s journey. Serving at the Persian palace in Shushan, Nehemiah received word of the dire situation in Jerusalem.

Nehemiah 1:3:
And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.

Like Ezra, Nehemiah recognized that the root of the problem lay in the sins of the people. "We have dealt very corruptly against thee," he confessed to God, "and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments" (v. 7). Like Ezra, he also knew that although the Jews had brought these problems upon themselves, God promised mercy to all who returned to him.

vv. 8-9:
Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations:
9 But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there.

And just as Ezra beseeched God on behalf of "every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel," so Nehemiah asked God to "be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name" (v. 11).

Nehemiah was "the king’s cupbearer," a position of great trust. When Artaxerxes learned that his servant was distressed by the problems in Jerusalem, he granted him the authority and provisions he needed to go to Judah and rebuild the city wall.

Notwithstanding "the good hand of my God upon me" and the king’s good will, Nehemiah faced adversity every step of the way. When ridicule alone did not deter his workers, his enemies conspired to violence. "They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease" (4:11). Nehemiah strengthened the workers, saying, "Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses" (v. 14).

v. 17:
They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon.

Within the camp were more problems, for "there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews" (5:1). The challenge of building the wall was compounded by an ongoing famine (v. 3), and the need to pay taxes to the king (v. 4). As a result, the "haves" were taking advantage of the "have nots," turning them into bondservants. Nehemiah quickly put an end to this evil practice.

Nehemiah 5:8:
And I said unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us? Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer.

The opposition from without continued. Nehemiah’s enemies spread lies among the workers that he was conspiring to make himself king and lead a revolution. Then they tried to beguile him through false prophecy. But neither Nehemiah nor the workers were fooled and despite all these problems, the work was completed.

Nehemiah 6:15:
So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty and two days.

Nehemiah 8 is one of the happiest chapters in the Bible. To commemorate the completion of the temple and the wall, Ezra stood before the people and "brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding" (v. 2). Together the chief priests "read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading" (v. 8). The people were so overwhelmed that they began to weep. Nehemiah redirected their sorrow to joy saying, "Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength" (v. 10). A great celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles commenced, "and there was very great gladness" (v. 17).

In chapter 9, the elders recounted the history of the Jews from the days of Abraham to their captivity in Babylon. Once again they realized that they themselves were accountable for all their woes. They had returned God’s kindness with disobedience.

Nehemiah 9:33:
Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly:

The final act of restoration concerned the people themselves. The people sealed themselves in a stern covenant with God, acknowledging the curse that would fall on them if they broke their vow.

Nehemiah 10:29:
They clave to their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and his judgments and his statutes;

Verses 34 to 39 detail the people’s pledge to return to the long-forsaken ordinance of tithing. Moses had so commanded their fathers saying, "Take heed to thyself that thou forsake not the Levite as long as thou livest upon the earth" (Deut. 12:19). Their negligence towards the Levite was indicative of their negligence of God.

The wall was built and the people were set in order. Nehemiah had completed his mission and he returned to Persia. Twelve years later, "in the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes" (13:6), he returned to Judah. He was horrified by what he saw.

The people had fallen into utter disarray. The open city gates with foreigners milling about on the Sabbath was a picture of an unsanctified people. The evildoer Tobiah who had done much to disrupt Nehemiah’s work had maneuvered his way into a comfortable position in the Temple. The Levites had left their ministries to work in the fields because the people had reneged on their vow to pay their tithes.

The Judeans had willfully "entered into a curse, and into an oath" to obey the ordinances of God or suffer the consequences. Now we can more fully understand the rebuke from Malachi, the last prophet of this era.

Malachi 3:8–9:
Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.
9 Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.

Nehemiah was devastated by the spiritual destitution of Jerusalem. All the reformations that Ezra and he had put into place were forgotten. He "cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber" (v. 8); he appointed new treasurers, and shut the gate on the foreign merchants. He revived the Levites and once again urged the people towards a sanctified life. Yet his heartache was unabated. Three times he besought the Lord, "Remember me, O my God, for good."

Nehemiah 13:14:
Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof.

A Lesson to the Church Today

Romans 15:4 says that records like this "were written for our learning." Just as the first exodus models the sinner’s salvation, the second exodus models the restoration of the Christian taken captive by the pleasures and pressures of this world. Pharaoh’s Egypt represents Satan’s kingdom of darkness; Babylon is godless society. The way to escape from Babylon is to live a sanctified life. Remember this prayer of Jesus:

John 17:15-17:
I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.
16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
17 Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.

It is unavoidable that every Christian will stumble in his walk with God. 1 John 1:8 says, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Thankfully, we are not cast back into Egypt when we sin, for then we would have no hope. Christ cannot be crucified again. But by God’s mercy, there is a way out from Babylon.

1 John 1:9:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Though the door was open to all, only a portion of Jews returned to Jerusalem. Some people are content to live in spiritual lethargy. But those who "trembled at the words of the God of Israel," and "who desire to fear thy name" will not settle for life in Babylon.

The second exodus is the story of THE GOODNESS OF GOD. No reasonable person can deny that "our God hast punished us less than our iniquities deserve" (Ezra 9:13). It is not that we are so good; it is that his mercies are so great. "It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed," declares Lamentations 3:22, "because his compassions fail not."

Ezra and Nehemiah sought God’s mercy as if they themselves had collected the gold and fashioned the golden calf. How different this is from the finger-pointing "prayers" that gush from our lips far too often. We have been beguiled into thinking that the problem lies with those other Christians. But we are all members of the same body of Christ. We are all part of the problem! Let us cease from rallying behind the great accuser and instead learn to stand in the gap for our brethren.

The second exodus is a story of REPENTANCE. To see the goodness of God is also to see how we "have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). That is why both "the goodness of God" and "godly sorrow" lead us to repentance (see Romans 2:4 and 2 Corinthians 7:10).

The second exodus is a story of RESISTANCE. Ezra and Nehemiah faced opposition from within and without. They resisted in the same way we all are told to resist the devil, by drawing near to God.

James 4:7-8a:
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
8 Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you...

The second exodus is a story of REFORMATION. It does you no good to confess your sins unless you forsake them as well. Ezra and Nehemiah did their utmost to lead the people of God away from the things that had ensnared them. Sometimes they must have felt as if they were trying to throw sand back into the ocean. But their work was not in vain. It has and will be remembered.

1 Corinthians 15:58:
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.

It is for good reason that the last book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi, closes with the promise of the Lord’s coming. When he returns, the Lord Jesus will be able to do what Moses, Jeremiah, Ezra and Nehemiah could not do. He will fully restore God’s chosen people.

Malachi 3:17:
And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.

Until then, let us be mindful that the pleasures we pursue are of God and not of Babylon.

Psalm 16:11:
Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

In God’s presence is fullness of joy, and "the joy of the LORD is your strength." May we all live our lives in his presence and joy, in the sanctity of truth.



From the November 2009 issue of The Vine & Branches