Jesse Tree: Day 18 Coming home? (Ezra 1:1-8 & 3:1-6)
More of the Old Testament than we might realise is taken up with the story of the return from Babylonian captivity. Many of the Prophets are occupied with the prospect; and Ezra and Nehemiah show us the struggles and opposition faced by those who re-located and rebuilt the Temple, Jerusalem and the national life of the Old Testament people of God. Then there is the ministry of the ‘post-Exilic’ prophets, such as Haggai and Zechariah, who help the people navigate their failures and frustrations.
And that in itself is telling. When you read the prophetic expectations about life in restored Israel and measure it against the reality, a chasm opens up. Many never returned at all, preferring to stay in Babylon. There was disappointment even amongst those who did return (Ezra 3:12); many of the same spiritual compromises continued (Neh.13:15-28); and the same problems that led to the exile haunted the people still (Mal.1-3). They seemed at times criminally apathetic, even in relation to the most significant of tasks (Hag.1:1-11). The land, and the people lingered under the shadow of divine displeasure (Hag.1:10). It all fell tragically short of the hopes of the prophets, who gave the impression of something far more promising: ‘The remnant of Israel will trust in the Name of the Lord, they will do no wrong; they will tell no lies … no-one will make them afraid … at that time I will bring you home’ (Zeph.3:9-20, see also e.g. Is.54, Mic.4:1-8).
That kind of dissonance should send us back to study the Scriptures more closely. Is the return from Babylon the fulfilment of all the prophets longed for? Would they have been satisfied with the extraordinary achievements under Ezra and Nehemiah? Or would they have lifted their eyes above the horizons of their own place in history, to see the hope of an even greater return? ‘The days are coming’, declares the LORD, ‘when I will fulfil the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; He will do what is just and right in the land’ (Jer.33:14-15). As with everything in the Old Testament, there is a relentless connecting of the Church’s hope to Christ. Unless it is fulfilled in and through Jesus, it isn’t fulfilled. Even partial fulfilments turn out to be prophesies of a greater and truer fulfilment still to come. There was still a Day to come. A Day when the Lord Himself would come. Only in Him would the hopes and dreams of all the years be met.
Jesus reminded His disciples that only in Him, and by Him could there be a return from exile. That is why He sent them out to ‘fish for people’ (Matt.4:19) - to fulfil the prophecy that through such fishermen, the people of God would be restored to the land (Jer.16:16).
I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the Lord Almighty. (Is 45:13)
Ideas for Family Devotions:
Operation No More Tears, is the Jesus Story Book retelling of some of Isaiah’s prophecy about the return from exile that Jesus will make possible. You can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4dkFJgmAT0
Who can you seek to ‘bring back from exile’ over this Christmas period? Why not invite them to our Christmas services…
Why not ‘build’ a memory verse wall to help remind you about Nehemiah and Ezra building the walls and worship of Jerusalem. Use stones, cardboard boxes, or anything stackable, and write a words from a verse on each one (Eph.2:22?).