Exile had always been “a death to make way for a rebirth.” Whether Adam and Eve stumbling away from Eden, or the Hebrews crying for rescue in Egypt, the story of exile has always been about learning hard lessons while hoping for a new future. Yet now, a group of God’s people were allowed to return to their Promised Land, fewer in number than ever.
The stories of Zerubabbel, Ezra, and Nehemiah started off great. As prophesied by Jeremiah (2 Chron 36:22), the kings in power were now legislating and even funding Israel’s return to Jerusalem. To control their empire and promote peace through a kind of religious liberty, the Persians allowed conquered nations like Egypt, Greece, and Israel to restore their religious practices. It is hard to imagine the relief and excitement they must have felt. Finally, God was back on their side!
Zerubabbel led the people back and rebuilt the temple. Ezra taught the people God’s word and saw fruit. Nehemiah rebuilt the wall. Yet, despite God’s promises that all nations would worship him in Jerusalem, outsiders were chased off (Ezra 4:1-5; Neh 13:8), families were split apart (Ezra 10:10-11:44; Neh 13:23-25), and, unlike before, God’s Spirit did not return to dwell in the rebuilt temple (Ezra 3:11-13). In fact, one of these interracial, Samaritan families built their own temple to worship Yahweh (John 4:20-22) in this period after they were marginalized by Nehemiah and company. This was their new normal.
Even after all the foretold blessings and curses had come, even after they had returned to their Promised Land, nothing had changed the condition of the human heart. Still, they were waiting on something no legislation, no amount of funding, not even limitless moral effort could provide . . . a heart not bent on self-centeredness and self-destruction, a heart able to follow God.
- Watch: To learn more, you can watch the Bible Project video on Ezra-Nehemiah.
- Listen: Nehemiah 9, 10, 13
This series is adapted from a Lent devotion from Nathan and Tessa Baker.
 Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 15.
 Kidner, 21.