Long before the Jews were taken from their land, the prophets predicted the exile (e.g., Isa. 39). Jeremiah even foresaw that they would be in Babylon seventy years (Jer. 25:1–14). Yet, exile would not be the last word, for the prophets also foresaw a day of glory for God’s people after their captivity. The Lord would come in power (Isa. 40). Jerusalem would be set over all earthly kingdoms, and the Davidic king would judge the nations and lead the people in obeying the law (Ezek. 37; Mic. 4:1–5; 5:1–5a). Worship would be grand and glorious, with all peoples serving the one true God (Isa. 2:1–4; Ezek. 40–48). Creation itself would be renewed (Isa. 65:17–25).
Such blessings were, of course, contingent on the repentance of the people (Lev. 26:40–42; Deut. 30:1–10). But when the prophet Daniel, while in exile, saw that the nation as a whole remained impenitent, he cried out to the Lord (Dan. 9:1–19). The Lord responded, telling Daniel that He was extending the exile and delaying the full restoration. Instead of seventy years of exile, the people would suffer seventy “weeks” or “sevens”—490 years—before the restoration promises would see fulfillment (vv. 20–27).
God in His grace did initiate a return from exile of sorts in 538 BC when Cyrus the Great permitted the Jews to go back to Canaan. But given what He told Daniel, this return was not the glorious restoration that the other prophets foresaw but only a meager beginning (Ezra 3). So, we are not surprised that instead of ruling over their enemies, the people of God were harassed by their enemies upon returning in 538/537 BC, as we see in today’s passage.
The peoples in the northern part of the promised land—resettled there by Assyria after Israel was captured in 722 BC—volunteered to assist with the temple rebuilding, but the Jews refused their help (Ezra 4:1–3; see 2 Kings 17). These peoples followed corrupt worship practices and could not be trusted to assist in reconstructing the temple. So, they tried to frustrate the rebuilding all the days of Cyrus, but they did not succeed in getting the returnees to stop construction until the reign of Cyrus’ successor Darius (Ezra 4:4–5, 24). Today’s passage tells us also that opposition occurred during the reigns of the Persian emperors Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes, which we will discuss more in our next study (vv. 6–23). The Jews were obeying God in returning to their land and rebuilding their temple, and as we should expect, God’s enemies opposed His work.