We are skipping over most of Ezra 2 in our study of the Old Testament Historical Books. However, we do need to look at some key facts mentioned in that chapter.
First, included in the list of returned exiles is Zerubbabel, who was the Persian-appointed governor of Judah after Cyrus the Great decreed the return of the Judahites (2:1–2; Hag. 1:1). Zerubbabel was the grandson of Jeconiah, or Jehoiachin, the Davidic king whom Babylon carried off into exile (2 Kings 24:8–17; 25:27–30; 1 Chron. 3:16–19). His appearance as the leader of God’s people signifies that the Lord’s promises to David (2 Sam. 7:1–17) had not failed even though, as we will see, the initial return from exile was not as glorious as the people had hoped. Also noted in the list of returned exiles is Jeshua or Joshua the high priest, who frequently appears alongside Zerubbabel in the biblical narrative (Ezra 2:1–2; Hag. 1:1).
Second, Ezra 2:64 gives us a total of returnees of just over forty–two thousand people. This was a great company, to be sure, but it was small in comparison to the total number of Jews in exile. (It was during the exile that the people of Israel and Judah first were called “Jews.”) The return from exile thus had an inauspicious start.
Ezra 3:1–7 informs us that the first thing the Jews did upon returning to the promised land was to rebuild the altar and then celebrate the Feast of Booths. Fear of the surrounding peoples motivated the Jews in doing this. Their awareness of their vulnerability in light of the many neighbors who had been hostile to them over the centuries encouraged them to get the job done. At the altar, they could meet with the Lord and call on His name for protection and provision (Ex. 29:38–46). So, their actions were also motivated by faith. They feared for their lives, and their only hope was to trust in God and cry out to Him where He promised to meet them, namely, at the altar.
After rebuilding the altar, work began on the temple itself in Jerusalem according to God’s direction to have a central place of worship (Deut. 12:1–14). They laid the foundation, which led to great celebration. Yet at the same time, there was great mourning on the part of those returned exiles who had seen the first temple. These individuals wept, for the size of the foundation told them that the glory of the new temple would be far less than the glory of Solomon’s temple (Ezra 3:8–13). It was a day of small things, not yet the grand restoration that they anticipated (Hag. 2:9).