After generations of idolatry, God’s people had been defeated by the empires that controlled the ancient world. The Assyrians had conquered the Northern kingdom, deported the people, and re-populated the land with exiles from other countries. Their practice was to redistribute people from conquered nations throughout their vast empire. The foreigners who were resettled in northern Israel intermarried with the few remaining Jews and became the half-breed Samaritans.
The Babylonians were next on the world scene. After each of their three conquests of the Southern Kingdom, the Babylonians deported Jewish captives to enclaves in Babylon and sought to assimilate them into their culture. Now, 70 years of captivity had elapsed. Kings and kingdoms rise and fall; world empires come and go.
The next world power, Persia, was more benevolent. They preferred the benefits of high taxation and the favor of the various gods. So King Cyrus issued a decree to repatriate all aliens to their homelands while allowing them some degree of self-rule. And thus the people of Israel began their journey home.
Under the guidance of the Hebrew leader, Zerubbabel, nearly 50,000 Jews returned to Jerusalem. They were intent on rebuilding, and the temple was the first priority. They rebuilt the altar and prepared sacrifices in accordance with the Law of Moses. Fifty years had passed since the temple had been torn down by the Babylonians, and at last God’s people were again able to worship as God had instructed. The foundation of this humble temple could not compare to the magnificence of its predecessor, but the process had begun, and God was leading the way.
The locals didn’t necessarily roll out the welcome wagon for the repatriated Judeans. They made a backhanded offer of help as an attempt to sabotage the temple rebuilding project. Zerubbabel didn’t fall for their scheme, but the Jews were intimidated and construction halted.
Sixteen years later the prophet, Haggai, spoke on God’s behalf. He twice urged his people, “Give careful thought to your ways.” He reminded them that the temple had to be built as a place of honor and glory for God. The LORD encouraged His people and they returned to their work. Though the new temple would not have the splendor of the old one, God promised that His unsurpassed glory would return. Zechariah agreed; Jerusalem would again teem with life and prosperity because the people would live righteously. God promised to shower Jerusalem and Judah with His goodness and make Israel a blessing to the world.
When the building resumed, a new antagonist, Tattenai, wrote to King Darius hoping to obstruct progress. Darius searched the royal archives and discovered that his predecessor, King Cyrus, had given his royal thumbs up to the rebuilding of God’s temple. In a fitting twist of events, Darius penned a letter back to Tattenai charging him with responsibility for funding the temple reconstruction. The plot backfired, and in 516 B.C., the temple was completed.
It had been 70 years since the people were first taken captive. This long and painful season of discipline brought much needed change to the hearts of God’s people. In the Lower Story, God brought them out of captivity again. He returned them to the Land of Promise where they rebuilt His temple and their lives.
But the Upper Story once again rings with echoes of delivery from bondage. The LORD had redeemed His people from foreign captivity as God’s great, over-arching plan continued unabated. This story of liberation and restoration is a poignant reminder that this world is not our home. Like Israel, we wait in joyful anticipation of our journey to a land of eternal promise (Heb. 11:16) where all things are new and home will be forever.