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Old Testament Overview V - Return from Exile

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

I: Creation and Patriarchs II: Exodus and Wilderness
III: Conquest and Monarchy IV: Divided Kingdom and Exile
V: Return from Exile VI: 400 Silent Years

Prev - OT Overview IV Next - OT Overview VI

The Return from Exile (Ezra, Nehemiah) (Sixth and fifth centuries BC 539 - 440 BC)

The Persians

Further to the East, the new empire of Persia was growing under the leadership of Cyrus. Their main cities were Susa, Persepolis and Ecbatana. The early Persian rulers were fairly civilised and benevolent, in contrast to the barbaric behaviour of the Assyrians and the Babylonians.

The Persians conquered a huge empire, much larger than Assyria or Babylon, stretching from Persia west and south to Ethiopia (modern Sudan). They organised it into many provinces, each under a provincial governor. One province was called 'Beyond the River' which included Judah and Jerusalem, the river being the Euphrates.

The Book of Esther

Set during the period of the Persian empire is the story of Esther, who was chosen as the queen of Persia (or at least one of the many queens!). Unknown to the king of Persia, Esther was Jewish, and encouraged by her uncle Mordecai, she was able to make a successful appeal for her people before the king when they were threatened with extermination by the evil prime minister, Haman. Although God is not explicitly mentioned in the book, he was certainly active behind the scenes, protecting his people. This great deliverance of the Jews was, and still is, celebrated each year in the Feast of Purim.

The Capture of Babylon (Dan 5) - KEY DATE: 539 BC

The city of Babylon had a series of huge walls around the city. These were up to 100 feet high, and were so wide that they could hold chariot races along the top, up to eight chariots wide. This led the people to become complacent, believing that no one could ever capture the city.

With the help of the Medes, Babylon fell to the Persians on the night of Belshazzar's feast (Dan 5). At the moment when the king began to use the sacred cups from the temple in Jerusalem for drinking wine, at a banquet which would probably degenerate into an orgy, a hand appeared and wrote on the wall. Daniel was called in, who interpreted the words, saying that the days of Belshazzar's kingdom have been brought to an end. They certainly had, because at that moment the Persian army was outside the city.

Babylon was built across the River Euphrates, so that the river flowed through the city. There were huge gates across the river to prevent anyone entering the city by boat. The Persians dug a canal and diverted the river round the city, so their army could enter the city along the dry river bed, as predicted by Isaiah (Is 44:27). This is also described in the history books (Herodotus - Book 1, ch 191)

Cyrus the Persian

The Assyrians scattered them, the Babylonians relocated them, but the Persians had a policy of repatriation, allowing the captured peoples to return home, and even helping them financially. In the British museum is the 'Cyrus Cylinder', which is a contemporary description of the edict made by Cyrus, allowing the Jews and other nationalities to return home (similar to that recorded in Ezra 1:2-4). Many years before, Isaiah had predicted Cyrus by name as the one anointed by God, even though he did not know God, who would allow the return of God's people and the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Is 44:28, 45:1).

The first return - led by Zerubbabel (Ezra 1-5)

The first Jews to return were led by Zerubbabel, the grandson of Jehoiachin, the last true Davidic king of Judah. Out of all the Jews in Babylon, only a few returned. These were the faithful remnant who wanted above all to be able to worship God in Jerusalem. Their motivation to return was purely religious, as Jerusalem was a heap of ruins and not the place to go for a comfortable, secure, and prosperous life. In fact, Isaiah had predicted this limited return, and named one of his sons Shear-jashub, meaning, "A remnant shall return" (Is 7:3).

With great rejoicing, the first group arrived in Jerusalem, and began to rebuild the temple. They completed the altar of burnt offering before opposition stopped the work, and the temple remained incomplete. God raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, who exhorted the people to complete the temple.

The Prophet Haggai

The small Book of Haggai contains four prophecies, all given in 520 BC. His main message was to challenge the people with their priorities, suggesting that the reason why life was difficult was because they had left the temple lying in ruins while they got on with their own lives. The people responded very quickly to his word, and completed rebuilding the temple. He then predicted the time when the latter splendour of the temple will be greater than the former, and gave a special blessing on Zerubbabel.

The Prophet Zechariah

The first part of the prophecy of Zechariah was also given around 520 BC, consisting of a series of visions about the rebuilding of the temple. The second part consists of two oracles which were probably given much later in Zechariah's life. These are very difficult to understand, but speak of the glorious future for Israel and the coming of their king on a donkey, the one who will be pierced.

Ezra and the 2nd return (Ezra 7-10, Neh 7-9) - KEY DATE: 458 BC

In the mid fifth century, another large group of exiles returned, led by Ezra. If Zerubbabel rebuilt the temple, and Nehemiah rebuilt the walls, then in many ways Ezra rebuilt the nation of the Jews. Following a public reading of the law, he led the people in a renewal of the covenant, and dealt severely with mixed marriages.

1 & 2 Chronicles

Ezra is a very significant figure in Jewish history. It is likely that he compiled the books of 1 & 2 Chronicles (which were originally whiten as a single scroll). In these, he looked back over the history of Israel from the perspective of after the return from exile. Starting with pages of genealogies, he showed the roots of the nation, and how God had established the line of kings from David. Chronicles focuses exclusively on the southern kingdom of Judah, and tends to gloss over the failings of the kings. It omits mention of the rebellious northern kingdom of Israel, because they were not faithful to God. The books have a major focus on the temple and the worship that took place in it.

Ezra was a scribe, a priest who was skilled in the law of Moses, and it was under his leadership that the Old Testament books were collected together, and some minor alterations probably made. Since his time, no books have been added to it.

Nehemiah - KEY DATE: 444 BC

Last in the history of the Old Testament is Nehemiah. He was the cupbearer to the king of Persia, and was saddened when he heard about the ruined state of the walls of Jerusalem. With permission of the king, he returned to Jerusalem, with a third group of exiles, and against much opposition from the people in the land, was able to organise the Jews to rebuild the walls of the city. He was appointed governor of the province 'Beyond the River' by the Persians. Led by Ezra, there was a public reading of the law, repentance, and a renewal of the covenant.

So, there were three main groups who returned from exile to Jerusalem:

Date Led by What happened
539 BC Zerubbabel Rebuilt temple
457 BC Ezra Rebuilt nation
444 BC Nehemiah Rebuilt walls

Developing streams and expectations

Following the return from the exile, we can see the beginnings of some important streams of thought, which developed through the period following the end of the Old Testament leading up to the time when Jesus came.

1. Legalism
To be allowed to return from the exile should be seen as God very graciously giving the people a 'second chance' to get it right this time, and not to fall into idolatry again. Reading the books of Ezra and Nehemiah we can get the impression that they were anxious to do everything just right, almost over anxious, so they didn't lose it all once more. This anxiety to do the right thing before God can perhaps be seen as the seeds of the legalism which grew with the Pharisees, and was such a problem during Jesus' ministry.

2. A sense of disillusionment
From their understanding of the prophets, the people returning from exile had high hopes of a glorious future of Israel. God had judged his people for their idolatry, and now they had come to the hope beyond the judgement. They expected everything to be wonderful, with no more problems, and Israel to be established as a great nation. However, they returned to a city which was a heap of ruins, there was opposition from the people in the land, and life was hard. Where had all the hopes gone to? This led to an increasing sense of disillusionment, and questioning whether God really loved them.

The Prophet Malachi

Into this disillusionment spoke the last prophet, Malachi. By asking a series of questions, he challenged the commitment of the people to God, and warned of his judgement. After him, there were no further Words of the Lord until the messenger he predicted came to prepare the way, and to turn the hearts of parents to their children - in the person of John the Baptist, 400 years later.

3. Expectation of the Messiah
Out of the disillusionment, there arose the expectation that God still had more that he wanted to do. The people began to believe that the glorious future of Israel was still in the future, associated with the time that the Messiah would come. So over the next centuries, there was an ever increasing expectation that the Messiah would imminently come, so that in the first century BC, and first century AD, there were a multitude of false Messiahs, who made outrageous claims and gathered followers. Unfortunately the people began to expect the wrong sort of Messiah, someone who would lead the army as a great military hero and establish his throne in Jerusalem as the Son of David, and make Israel a great political power. Jesus had to re-educate his disciples about the true nature of the Messiah, as the one who came to serve, and to give his life for many (Mk 10:45).

Prev - OT Overview IV Next - OT Overview VI

Related articles

I: Creation and Patriarchs II: Exodus and Wilderness
III: Conquest and Monarchy IV: Divided Kingdom and Exile
V: Return from Exile VI: 400 Silent Years

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

New Testament History

Articles which give additional information about the history and culture of the first century, giving helpful background knowledge for the Gospels and Paul's travels.

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey.

More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Early Church Fathers

These are a series of pages giving biographical information about some of the more significant early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian, as well as some important groups and events in the first centuries of the church.

Artifacts in the British Museum relevant to Biblical studies

These are a series of pages describing artifacts in each gallery of the British Museum, which have a connection with the Bible.

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Historical documents

These are a series of pages containing historical documents which give helpful information for Biblical studies. These include Hittite suzerainty treaties with a similar structure to the Book of Deuteronomy, different lists of the New Testament books and quotations from Josephus and other ancient writers.

Life Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.