“Ezra” series: (post #3)
Here is the list of the Jewish exiles of the provinces who returned from their captivity. King Nebuchadnezzar had deported them to Babylon, but now they returned to Jerusalem and the other towns in Judah where they originally lived. (Ezra 2:1, N.L.T.)
How many of the approximately two million or so Jews living in Babylon accepted Cyrus the Great’s offer to return to their homeland of Judah and build a new temple in Jerusalem? The total number was only 42,360 (Ezra 2:64-65). By adding in the additional 7,337 Gentile servants and 200 Gentile singers (secular singers), the group’s traveling total gets raised to 49,897 Additionally, 736 horses, 245 mules, 435 camels, and 6,720 donkeys made the trip (Ezra 2:66-67).
You might be asking, “But why didn’t all of the Jews return home?” My answer is that, spiritually speaking, the only ones who chose to make the trip were the ones whom God had inwardly stirred to make it (Ezra 1:5). Evidently, the stirring those people felt was something like an Old Testament version of Philippians 2:13, which says concerning the Christian:
for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (N.K.J.V.)
As for the practical side of things, there were numerous reasons why the vast majority of Jews chose to remain in Babylon. And truth be told, each of those reasons had enough merit to make staying in Babylon seem like a sensible course of action. To see this, let me name the reasons.
Reason #1: Many of the Jews were simply too old to make the physically demanding trip of 900 miles. The trip would take four long months (Ezra 7:9), and even if the elderly Jews survived it, there was a ton of hard work awaiting them at the end of it. Temple building, obviously, isn’t something that old folks usually line up to do. Take the prophet Daniel, for instance. He was at least in his 80s when Cyrus’ decree was given. That probably explains why the Bible makes no mention of him being in the group that returned to Judah.
Reason #2: Many of the Jews worried about the potentially fatal dangers inherent with the trip. Harsh weather conditions could take a heavy toll, to say nothing of what thieves, robbers, bandits, and cutthroats might do. It wouldn’t have been just the elderly who would have been concerned about the element of danger, either. The fathers and mothers of infants and young children would have had the same apprehensions.
Reason #3: Many of the Jews had been born in Babylon during the captivity, which meant that Babylon was the only home they had ever known. Sure, they had heard the older generations tell stories about the land of Israel in general and the region of Judah specifically, but all the stories in the world could not create actual memories. Historically speaking, my Scotch-Irish ancestors settled the region of the Appalachian Mountains in which I have spent my entire life, but I have no plans to pull up stakes and relocate to either Scotland or Ireland just because my ancestors once lived there.
Reason #4: Many of the Jews enjoyed lives of reasonable comfort in Babylon. The possibility that a Jew could become wealthy in Babylon through business is evidenced by the fact that 7,337 Gentile servants of Jewish people joined in with the group bound for Judah. You see, unlike Israel’s 400 years of bondage at the hands of the Egyptians, the Babylonians did not inflict harsh labor upon the Jews. Some of them, like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, even held positions of authority in Babylon’s government. Even the Jews who hadn’t enjoyed any privilege under Babylonian rule knew their lives would be getting easier under the rule of Medo-Persia. Cyrus’ decree was clear proof of that. Therefore, some of them probably thought, “Why should we leave here now? We’ve already endured the worst part of staying?”
Reason #5: Many of the Jews still remembered the prophet Jeremiah’s instructions to them regarding their years in Babylon. He had told them to build houses there, live in those houses, plant gardens, eat the harvests, marry fellow Jews, and produce children (Jeremiah 29:1-6). He had also told them to seek the peace of Babylon as a way of seeking their own peace (Jeremiah 29:7). Admittedly, Jeremiah had meant for his instructions to apply only to Israel’s required years of exile, but we can understand how a Jew who had built a house in Babylon and raised a family in that house wouldn’t have been so quick to move 900 miles away in his senior-citizen years.
Reason #6: Many of the Jews were too backslidden or undiscerning to understand the spiritual value of relocating to Judah and building a new temple. Actually, the nation’s appreciation for spiritual matters had been at a low ebb even before the Babylonians had marched to the gates of Jerusalem. That was one of the reasons why God had allowed the Babylonians to do what they had done. And, obviously, after all those decades in Babylon without a temple, a priesthood, or the opportunities to observe their spiritual feasts and offer up sacrifices, the Jews’ level of spirituality had only decreased all the more.
It’s fair to ask if all those Jews who chose to remain in Babylon missed God’s will in doing so. My take is, they didn’t. As I see it, the determining factor for what God’s will was for each individual was whether or not God stirred up that person to make the trip. Getting back to Daniel as an example, no one is going to convince me that he missed God’s will by staying in Babylon.
What we can learn from this is that God doesn’t have a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all will for everybody. Certainly He wants each individual to experience salvation (2 Peter 3:9) and live completely under His Lordship, but that’s pretty much where the group similarity stops. As I said at the close of the first post in this series, if God stirs you up to make the move to Jerusalem and help build the new temple, His blessings surely await you in Jerusalem. No one is disputing that. But just be certain that it’s God who is burdening you to make the move. Putting it another way, don’t let anybody goad you into doing something that God isn’t telling you to do. Remember what Vance Havner used to say: “Some sing, ‘I’ll go where you want me to go Lord,’ but they won’t stay where He wants them to stay.”