In a stunning fulfillment of prophecy declared 150 years earlier by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 44:28), King Cyrus of Persia proclaimed that God’ people (now broadly known as Jews) should return to their homeland and rebuild God’s temple (Ezra 1:1-4). So up went the tribal leaders, priests and Levites who felt God’s urging to execute this order. No sooner had these descendants of captivity settled in the cities of their homeland than they ‘gathered together as one man to Jerusalem.’ (Ezra 3:1b) Once in Jerusalem, they proceeded to build ‘the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses, the man of God…they also kept the Feast of Tabernacles, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings…afterwards they offered the regular burnt offering…for all the appointed feasts of the Lord…’ (Ezra 3:3-5, emphasis mine).
As if that wasn’t enough, the people came forward of their own accord to denounce those who had taken foreign wives from nations forbidden by God (Canaanites, Hittites, Moabites, etc). The entire congregation then willingly submitted to Ezra’s direction that such marriages be annulled (Ezra 9-10).
Were these the people who, only 70 years before, had been exiled from their land due to rampant disobedience to God’s word (including intermingling with forbidden foreign nations)? The same ones who had so neglected the Law of Moses that it lay forgotten in a nook of the temple and was only stumbled upon during a money gathering exercise? (2 Kings 22)
Yes…and no. They were the same descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; however, something had changed during the time of their captivity. Stripped of their national identity and Solomon’s impressive temple, the captives congregated around the one thing that they still had in common – God’s word. Although the Babylonians waged a determined campaign to make their captives forget about their homeland, these exiles held on to the prophecies of restoration with hope. To avoid assimilation into the culture of the day, they had to find some way in which to set themselves apart. And so, God’s word became their very culture. No wonder, then, that it was foremost in their minds and thoughts in a way that their ancestors had never quite managed. To this day, observant Jews take Deuteronomy 11:18 literally, and wear small black leather boxes containing scripture inscribed parchments during weekday morning prayers.
God’s people were so changed that they never again had another king. Instead, the priesthood rose in prominence. And the idolatry with which their ancestors had so struggled? It was truly a thing of the past. Modern day Jews are so leery of idolatry that they permit no images of God in any way, shape or form.
These changes didn’t mean that they were now perfect. However, the new mindset paved the way for the ultimate fulfillment of prophecy – Jesus. Although Jesus was rejected by the larger population, there were a few key individuals who recognized him as the Messiah of scripture. And with these few, God changed the world.
Deuteronomy 32:46b-47a says ‘…be careful to observe all the words of this law. For it is not a futile thing for you, because it is your life…’ Is that how you see God’s word? Join me next time as we explore this statement.