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Introduction and Background

With this article, we begin a study in the writings of the (so-called) post-exilic prophets: Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. They are called "post-exilic" prophets because they ministered in Israel after the Israelites returned to the promised land from their Babylonian exile. In this article, we will review the historical background for the time that the first two of these prophets (Haggai and Zechariah) wrote. In doing so, we will quote extensively from the book of Ezra, which chronicles the history of the returning exiles.

Shortly after the death of Solomon, the kingdom of Israel split into two kingdoms (see I Kings 12). The southern kingdom, also known as "Judah", was ruled by Solomon's son Rehoboam, and consisted of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, as well as most of the Levite priests. The northern kingdom was ruled by Jeroboam, one of Solomon's former officials. The northern kingdom has been variously known as "Israel" (as it is mainly called in the books of Kings and Chronicles), "Ephraim" (because Jeroboam was an Ephraimite), and "Samaria" (for northern Israel is known as Samaria). Since the priests of God, the tribe of Levi, remained loyal to the southern kingdom, the northern kingdom quickly fell into idolatry. Jeroboam appointed his own pagan priests to be the spiritual leaders (see I Kings 12:25-33). Except for a relatively brief revival under the leadership of Jehu and Joash (see I Kings 9-12), the northern kingdom remained in idolatry and in disobedience to God. Because of their disobedience, God allowed Assyria to conquer the northern kingdom and, in 722 B.C., the Israelites were removed from Samaria and exiled to Assyria (see II Kings 17:22-23). To replace the Israelites, the king of Assyria brought people from other conquered kingdoms (Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim) to live in Samaria (see II Kings 17:24). The king of Assyria also sent back priests from Israel to teach these new inhabitants how to worship the Lord. Although these new inhabitants worshipped the Lord, they also continued to worship their own false gods from their own lands (see II Kings 17:27-34). These people became known as the Samaritans. They considered themselves to be worshippers of the True and Living God, but their religion also consisted of idolatrous practices. Thus, when later the true people of God returned from exile in Babylon, they did not allow the Samaritans to help rebuild the temple. This caused strife and opposition to the effort to rebuild the temple, as we shall see.

The southern kingdom fared better than the northern kingdom, but not that much better. They went through a series of kings, some of whom were good and some of whom evil. But alas, the evil kings did more damage than the good kings did good. In the end, because of their disobedience to Him, God allowed Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (which had freed itself from Assyrian rule in 626 B.C.) to conquer the southern kingdom. In 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and carried away the inhabitants of the southern kingdom to exile in Babylon (see II Kings 25).

Micah had prophesied that Israel and Judah would be conquered (see Micah 1), and Jeremiah had prophesied that the people of God would be exiled (see Jeremiah 25:1-10), but Jeremiah also prophesied that the exile would only last seventy years (see Jer. 25:11-12; Jer. 29:10). Furthermore, and quite astoundingly, the Lord spoke through Isaiah (who prophesied in Israel 100 years before the exile) that a man named Cyrus would conquer Babylon and allow the people of God to return to the promised land to rebuild the temple:

This is what the LORD says--your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: "I am the LORD, who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, who foils the signs of false prophets and makes fools of diviners, who overthrows the learning of the wise and turns it into nonsense, who carries out the words of His servants and fulfils the predictions of His messengers, who says of Jerusalem, `It shall be inhabited,' of the towns of Judah, `They shall be built,' and of their ruins, `I will restore them,' who says to the watery deep, `Be dry, and I will dry up your streams,' who says of Cyrus, `He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, "Let it be rebuilt," and of the temple, "Let its foundations be laid."'"

This is what the LORD says to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: "I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me.

"I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting men may know there is none besides me. I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things" (Isaiah 44:24-45:7).

And indeed, just as God had said it would be more than a hundred years before it happened, so it was. Darius the Mede, under Cyrus the ruler of the Medes and Persians, conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. just after the famous "writing on the wall" incident (see Dan. 5).

And also, just as the Lord said through Isaiah, Cyrus allowed the people of God to return to their homeland to rebuild the temple. Ezra records:

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing:

"This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: `The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build a temple for Him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of His people among you--may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.'"

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites--everyone whose heart God had moved--prepared to go up and build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-5).

In 538 B.C., Zerubbabel led some 50,000 people back to the promised land (see Ezra 2). When they arrived, they enthusiastically began their work of rebuilding the Temple of God and the city of Jerusalem:

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the LORD, both the morning and evening sacrifices. Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day. After that, they presented the regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed sacred feasts of the LORD, as well as those brought as freewill offerings to the LORD. On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the LORD, though the foundation of the LORD'S temple had not yet been laid.

Then they gave money to the masons and carpenters, and gave food and drink and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre, so that they would bring cedar logs by sea from Lebanon to Joppa, as authorized by Cyrus king of Persia.

In the second month of the second year after their arrival at the house of God in Jerusalem, Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Jeshua son of Jozadak and the rest of their brothers (the priests and the Levites and all who had returned from the captivity to Jerusalem) began the work, appointing Levites twenty years of age and older to supervise the building of the house of the LORD. Jeshua and his sons and brothers and Kadmiel and his sons (descendants of Hodaviah) and the sons of Henadad and their sons and brothers--all Levites--joined together in supervising those working on the house of God.

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the LORD, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: `He is good; His love to Israel endures forever.' And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away (Ezra 3:1-13).

However, as all servants of the Lord embarking on a great work of God have experienced, they ran into opposition. The Samaritans who were living in the promised land at that time wanted to join in the work. When Zerubbabel would not let them, they stirred up trouble:

When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the LORD, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, "Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to Him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here."

But Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, "You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us."

Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They hired counsellors to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia (Ezra 4:1-5).

Because of this sedition and intimidation, construction on the Temple languished in 530 B.C. for ten years. Then (in 520 B.C.), God raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, to exhort and encourage the people of God to resume work on the Temple, and finish the great work that started (see Ezra 5:1).

In the book of Haggai, a brief two chapters long, we have a taste of this exhortation and encouragement. In the first chapter, Haggai exhorts the people with a strong call to rouse the people up and resume the building of the temple. In the second chapter, Haggai encourages the people in their work by telling them of the blessings and glories that God has in store for His people. In the next issue, we will study the first chapter of Haggai in detail.

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