When the Babylonian army under Nebuchadnezzar finished its work in destroying Jerusalem and carrying off the cream of its citizenry into exile in 586 BC, God’s people faced their greatest crisis ever, both politically and spiritually. This was the land that God had promised centuries earlier to Abraham, and where his descendants had lived for more than eight hundred years. Now it lay “uncovered” (this is the basic meaning of the word exile), its cities and its people brutalized. Abraham’s descendants now lived exiled in a hostile land.
The great promises that God had made to David — about a kingdom centered in Jerusalem — seemed far away, even broken (see Psalm 89:19, 38–40). Psalm 137 captures some of the Israelites’ anguish: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres…. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (vv. 1–2, 4). The impact of Jerusalem’s destruction is described in excruciating detail three separate times in Scripture: 2 Kings 25; 2 Chronicles 36; and Jeremiah 52.
This was a spiritual crisis, as well as a political one, because God had promised Abraham and his descendants the land in perpetuity (see Gen. 13:15; 17:8; 48:4), and David a royal descendent on the throne in Jerusalem in perpetuity (2 Sam. 7:11–16; 1 Chron. 17:10–14). Now, seemingly, all was lost: their land, their holy city, their temple and all its trappings, their elaborate sacrificial system and its priesthood, their king — everything.
This did not come upon God’s people unawares. God had warned the nation from the very beginning that their continued tenure in the land depended on their obedience; if they were not faithful, God would remove them from it (Deut. 4:25–27; 30:17–20). The prophets had repeatedly warned of this (see Mic. 1:3–4; Zeph. 1:4–6; Jer. 25:4–7; 26:4–6).
So, the Israelites in exile cried out to God with a renewed awareness of their sin: “Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?” (Ezek. 33:10). God answered them that the key to their survival was repentance — turning their backs on sin (vv. 11–20). This was to be a genuine and heart-felt repentance, like had not been seen among God’s people in many generations.
God in His grace had promised His people that He would certainly bring them back (Jer. 29:10), and that He would use Cyrus as His anointed instrument (Isa. 44:28; 45:1–4). When the time came, Cyrus indeed was God’s instrument, issuing a remarkable decree, freeing the Jews to return to their land (2 Chron. 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–4). The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the restoration of God’s people after the exile.
In Ezra 1–6, we learn of the first wave of returnees under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, of the first attempts to rebuild the temple, of local opposition to that rebuilding, and of the eventual completion of the temple, over a twenty-five year period (539–515 BC). A gap of more than fifty years followed until the time of Ezra’s return to the land in 458 BC, with a religious commission to teach the Law (Ezra 7–10).
Nehemiah was Ezra’s later contemporary, arriving in Jerusalem in 445 BC. He returned with a political commission as governor, which included authorization to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He oversaw this task in the face of fierce opposition (Neh. 1–6), and joined Ezra in a great ceremony of reading the Law and celebrating the Festival of Tabernacles, including a great national confession and a renewing of the covenant (Neh. 8–10).
In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we see joy, optimism, and a strong sense of spiritual purpose. After all, had not God brought His people back in fulfillment of the prophecy to Jeremiah (Ezra 1:1)? The return to the land from Babylon echoed in many ways the earlier return to the land from Egypt, only this time, a spirit of joy and enthusiasm prevailed (see Ezra 1–3). The whole nation pitched in to help, whether in rebuilding the temple (Ezra 1–6), or, later, in rebuilding the walls (Neh. 3), or even in repopulating Jerusalem (Neh. 11).
There was a return to strict adherence to the Law, seen, for example, in the reforms that Ezra and Nehemiah instituted. Both confronted the issue of mixed marriages with foreigners, and both took drastic measures to eradicate all such ties (Ezra 9–10; Neh. 13:23–27). Years before them, the people under Zerubbabel and Jeshua carefully reinstituted sacrifices (Ezra 3). Years later, they publicly read the Law and made confession on the basis of what they had read (Neh. 8–9). The impression is that the people had learned a lesson from the trauma of the exile: if they were going to err in any direction, it was going to be in the direction of being too strict.
Despite the joy and sense of community that attended the different returns to the land and the rebuilding of the temple and the walls, there were also traces of sadness and diminished expectations. This is seen most vividly when the temple foundations were laid around 536 BC. On this occasion, a great shout of joy was raised, but it was intermingled with a great cry from those who remembered the first temple: this temple now being constructed could not compare with the glories of the previous one (Ezra 3:10–13). The land had suffered greatly during the exile, and the people were greatly impoverished, and so a temple on the scale of Solomon’s temple simply would not be built.
Moreover, the glories of the Davidic-Solomonic kingdom would not be re-established any time soon. Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, was living proof that the promises of the Davidic Covenant were still in effect (Ezra 3:2; 5:2). But, Zerubbabel did not preside over anything close to the kingdom that had been promised to David, to say nothing of the far more glorious kingdom predicted in the prophets. Both Ezra and Nehemiah, in their prayers, indicated their acute awareness that they were still under foreign domination, and thus not free (Ezra 9:7; Neh. 9:36).
What, then, of the great promises of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants, in the light of the diminished state of affairs after the exile? Evangelical believers differ as to the exact place of the land in the future of God’s dealings with His people. But, all agree that the great promises to Abraham and David — about their descendants, about God’s relationship with His people, about the blessing of the nations through them — find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, the Christ. Indeed, the New Testament begins by affirming this: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). Of all the forty-two names in the list that follows (vv. 2–17), Matthew’s selection of these two — David and Abraham — betrays his conviction that Jesus was not only physically the descendant of these two great Old Testament figures, but also the very embodiment of the great promises that had been given to them. The One toward which Old Testament history points has now come.