10 Oct


“In the year 538 B.C. Cyrus gave the people of Israel permission to return to their own country and to rebuild the temple of Jahweh. Naturally no emigration on a large scale could be attempted at once. Any sizeable caravan would require extensive preparations: the gathering of animals for transport, the amassing of provisions, the appointment of leaders, and even the determination of those who were to go.


Since at least fifty years had passed since the arrival of the children of Israel in Babylon, a whole new generation existed who had known no other home than Babylon. Many of these had prospered in the new land. It was only natural that some of these should choose to remain in the only land they knew. On the other hand it seems reasonable to suppose that many had not prospered and would be only too happy to seek their fortunes in the old homeland. In addition there was a strong group dedicated to the worship of Jahweh, with a strong desire to restore the Temple of Jahweh at Jerusalem and to provide for the pure worship of the one true God. This latter group was, no doubt, the vital core around which the preparations for the return were built.


In the spring of 538 B.C. the exiles began their return journey to Jerusalem. The caravan counted 42,360 Israelites, some 7,000 slaves and numerous horses, mules, camels and asses. At the head of the group were twelve leaders. The number was probably intended to remind the people of the twelve tribes of the nation, and so to signify that it was the whole race of the Chosen People who were returning to their home and to the worship of their God.

There is some doubt about the identity of the leader of the whole caravan. Esdras tells us that Cyrus entrusted the caravan and the governorship to Sassabasar, ‘the prince of Juda.’ But there is also mention of Zorobabel, a grandson of Joachim who had been king of Juda. Historians are undecided as to whether or not Sassabasar and Zorobabel are the same person. But it does seem clear that some time after the arrival of the Israelites in Jerusalem the people are governed by Zorobabel, a descendant of the House of David, and by Josue, the high priest, a descendant of Seraias, the last high priest at Jerusalem before the Exile.

The first concern of the people who returned was to establish themselves either in their old homes and estates or in new ones. Some were fortunate enough to find their old homes or land unoccupied. Others no doubt had to buy back their former houses or land.


Seven months after their return they were able to rebuild an altar to Jahweh on the spot where the previous Temple altar had stood. In the second month of the second year of their return they laid the foundations for the rebuilding of the Temple itself. The Samaritans asked to be allowed to take part in the work of rebuilding the Temple. The Samaritans were a mixed people – Babylonians, Syrians, Arabs and the Israelites who remained in Samaria after the fall of the kingdom of Israel in 721 A.D. The foreign peoples adopted the worship of Jahewh as symbolised in the golden bull at Bethel. They do not seem to have renounced entirely the worship of their own gods.

The repatriated Israelites refused the offer of the Samaritans. They were afraid that the idolatrous nature of the Jahwistic worship of the Samaritans might prevent or taint the pure spiritual worship of Jahweh which they felt obliged to restore at Jerusalem. This refusal made the Samaritans hostile both to the returned settlers and to the project of rebuilding the Temple. The hostility of the Samaritans and probably the lack of material resources prevented the continuance of the work.


It was not until the year 520 B.C. that the task of rebuilding the Temple was taken up again. On August 29 of that year, when the people had assembled at the altar of Jahweh, the prophet Aggaeus addressed Zorobabel and Josue, the high priest: ‘Thus saith the Lord of hosts, saying: This people saith: The time is not yet come for building the house of the Lord… Is it time for you to dwell in ceiled houses, and this house lies desolate?’ (Aggaeus [Haggai] 1: 2 and 4). The prophet then told them that they had not prospered as much as they had hoped because, while they had exerted great efforts to provide for their own homes and comfort, they had neglected to build a house for God. The people accepted the word of the prophet, especially after he had told them, ‘I am with you, saith the Lord’ (Aggaeus [Haggai] 1:13). On September 21, under the leadership of Zorobabel and Josue, the work of rebuilding the Temple began.


It was apparent, however, to those who could remember the former Temple, that the resources of the people would not allow them to build a Temple equal to Solomon’s Temple. This disheartened them, but God again sent the prophet Aggaeus to console them in their efforts. ‘Take courage all ye people of the land, saith the Lord: and perform (for I am with you saith the Lord of hosts) the word that I covenanted with you when you came out of the land of Egypt. And my spirit shall be in the midst of you: fear not. For thus saith the Lord of hosts: Yet one little while, and I will move the heaven and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will move all nations: and the desired of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts’ (Aggaeus [Haggai] 2:5-8). God then promised them that the glory of this new Temple would surpass the glory of the Temple of Solomon.


At this same time God also sent the prophet Zacharias [Zechariah] to strengthen the people in their resolution to rebuild the Temple of Jahweh. Through Zacharias God promised to be merciful to Jerusalem and to come to dwell therein. ‘Sing praise and rejoice, O daughter of Sion: for behold I come and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the Lord’ (Zacharias 2:10). God promises to send a King to save them: ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion, shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem: Behold thy King will come to thee, the just and the saviour. He is poor and riding upon an ass and upon a colt, the foal of an ass’ (Zacharias 9:9).

While the message of Zacharias was in part a message of joy and hope, it was also mysterious and terrifying. It was mysterious because it spoke of a King Who would be poor ‘and riding upon an ass.’ It was terrifying because Zacharias foretold also the destruction of the people: ‘I will no more spare the inhabitants of the land, saith the Lord: behold I will deliver the men, every one into his neighbour’s hand and into the hand of his king’ (Zacharias 11:6). It was both mysterious and terrifying when Zacharias told them that they would value their God at a price of only thirty pieces of silver: ‘And I said to them: If it be good in your eyes, bring hither my wages: and if not, be quiet. And they weighed for my wages thirty pieces of silver. And the Lord said to me: Cast it to the potter, a handsome price, that I was prized at by them. And I took the thirty pieces of silver and I cast them into the house of the Lord, to the potter’ (Zacharias 11:12-13). It was both consoling and mysterious and terrifying when God, through Zacharias, said to them: ‘I will pour out upon the house of David and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace and of prayers: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced. And they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for an only son: and they shall grieve over him, as the manner is to grieve for the death of the first-born’ (Zacharias 12:10).


The urgings of the two prophets succeeded in strengthening the resolution of the people. They continued the work of rebuilding the Temple. Despite the opposition of the Samaritans and others, they completed the work in 515 B.C., four and a half years after they had begun. The Temple was dedicated to Jahweh with great solemnity and rejoicing and that year the Passover was celebrated with a renewed faith in God Who had brought them out of bondage from both Egypt and Babylonia.

We can assume with probability that the success of their efforts to restore the Temple rekindled their faith and virtue and that the flame of their faithfulness to God continued for some time. But they were living in difficult conditions. They were living in the midst of strangers, disliked by the Samaritans and Edomites. To live they had to do business with these foreigners whose religious ideas and practice could hardly be reconciled with a pure worship of Jahweh. In addition Israelite women were in the minority among those who had returned from Babylon. This led to a number of mixed marriages between Jahwistic Israelites and idolatrous foreigners. As a result the worship of Jahweh suffered.


When this breakdown of the worship of God occurred God first sent the prophet Malachias [Malachi] (perhaps the last of the prophets) to reprove the people. Malachias reproached the priests and the people because they had offered inferior and polluted sacrifices in the Temple. Because of this contempt of God their sacrifices are no longer pleasing to God: ‘I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord of hosts: and I will not receive a gift of your hand.’ Instead God will turn to the Gentiles, the pagan nations of the world: ‘For from the rising of the sun even to the going down thereof, my name is great among the Gentiles and in every place there is sacrifice and there is offered in my name a clean oblation. For my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts’ (Malachias 1:10-11).

Malachias also rebuked the people for marrying women who worshipped strange gods and for being too ready to resort to divorce. But God’s chief complaint was against the loss of faith of the Chosen People. Apparently their restoration to their homeland had not fulfilled their expectations. They must have thought that the glorious Messianic future of which their former prophets had spoken would begin when they returned to Jerusalem and Juda. They must have expected God to make them at once a mighty nation and give them the dominion of the world. But this had not happened. They remained subject to the overlordship of the Persians and to the hostility of the neighbouring peoples. This made them doubt the justice of God and complain: ‘Every one that doth evil is good in the sight of the Lord and such please him: or surely where is the God of Judgment?’ (Malachi 2:17).

In reply God promised to come to His Temple and to His people to execute justice. First, He said, He would send an angel ‘to prepare the way before (His) face.’ Then He would restore the purity of worship in His Temple and pronounce judgment on all the evil doers of the Chosen People (Malachias 3:1-6). Finally, He would send Elias to turn the hearts of the Chosen People back to God, and then He would make a final judgment of all mankind (Malachias 4:1-6).


The message of Malachias does not seem to have produced a lasting improvement in the faith or the morals of thee people. Their evil practices, especially that of contracting mixed marriages [with one spouse outside the faith], continued. When news of this reached the Israelites who had remained in Babylonia, it led to the reforms of Esdras and Nehemias. With the favour of Artaxerxes II, Esdras returned to Jerusalem to stir up a greater allegiance to the Mosaic Law. At his direction the Law was read solemnly to all the people. The contrast between the directives of the Law and their own way of living produced a feeling of sorrow and repentance in the hearts of the people. But when Esdras insisted on the dissolution of the mixed marriages the people refused and his reform failed to achieve its objective. Nehemias, who also enjoyed the favour of the Persian monarch, came later and was more successful.

The captivity of the Chosen People in Babylon and their repatriation in Jerusalem and Judah taught them one valuable lesson: there is no true God but Jahweh, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is true that their restoration to their homeland had not produced the worldly advantages they expected. They needed the exhortations of Aggaeus and Zacharias to drive them to the rebuilding of the Temple of God. They needed the reproaches of Malachias to restore their faith in God’s justice. But they had learned that the gods of other nations were empty and vain.


This same difficult period in the history of the Chosen People also brought further mysterious manifestations of God’s designs for the salvation of mankind. Salvation was to be wrought by a Servant of God Who would be a King; a King, strangely enough, Who would be poor, too poor to ride upon a horse or a camel; a King Who would ride upon an ass and a colt, the foal of an ass; a King Who would be despised by His own people and valued at only thirty pieces of silver; a King Who would be pierced by His own people; but still a King Who would gain the allegiance of the Gentiles, that is, the non-Israelitic nations of the world.


Perhaps the most significant of the divine messages to the Chosen People at this time was the revelation of God’s ardent desire to be with His people, to dwell in their midst. When the prophets urge the people to rebuild the Temple they encourage the people with the thought: The Lord is with you, and the Lord Himself will come and dwell in your midst.

This recalls the reality of God’s presence to His people in the wilderness, when He rested on the Ark of the Covenant, a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It recalls the reality of God’s presence in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple. Though the people fail Him, reject Him, despise Him, still God pursues them.


In the prophetic messages of this period it is possible to see the extreme poignancy of God’s love for mankind. From Abraham to Malachias God sought only to bring blessings to His Chosen People, and through them to the world. But, in spite of all His mercies and in the face of the wonders which He performed for them, the pleasures and comforts as well as the trials and cares of this sad human world proved too much for them. But God would not abandon His designs. Even though He knows that His Chosen People will reject Him and abandon Him, He still promises to redeem both them and the other nations of mankind. God’s love for men is the love of a father for his children; it is even more than this, it is the love of a lover giving the totality of Himself for His beloved.”
– Rev. Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959


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