THE STORY OF A JOYOUS JOURNEY
Ezra 1:1 to 3:7
WE have seen, in the story of the kingdom of Israel, or the Ten Tribes, how the great empire of Assyria arose from the city of Nineveh, on the Tigris river; how it ruled all the lands and carried away the Ten Tribes of Israel into captivity, from which they never came back to their own land. We saw, too, how the empire of Assyria went down, and the empire of Babylon, or Chaldea, arose in its place under Nebuchadnezzar. As soon as Nebuchadnezzar died, the empire of Babylon began to fall, and in its place arose the empire of Persia, under Cyrus, who is called Cyrus the Great, because of his many victories and his wide rule. His empire was much greater than either the Assyrian or the Chaldean empire, for it held in its rule the land of Egypt, all the lands known as Asia Minor, and also many lands in the far east.
Cyrus, the great king, was a friend to the Jews, who at this time were still living in the land of Chaldea, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It was now seventy years since the first company of captives had been taken away from the land of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar, and fifty years since the city of Jerusalem had been burned. By that time the Jews were no longer looked upon as captives in the land of Chaldea. They lived in their own houses, and tilled their own farms, and were in peace. Many of them were rich, and some of them, like Daniel and his three friends, were in high places at the court of the king.
You remember that in the early days of the captivity, Jeremiah the prophet wrote a letter to those who had been carried away to Babylon, telling them that after seventy years they would come back to their own land. The seventy years were now ended. The older men and women who had been taken away had died in the land of Chaldea, but their children, and their children's children still loved the land of Judah as their own land, although it was so far away.
The Lord put it into the heart of Cyrus, the king of Persia, very early in his reign, to send word among the Jews that they might now go back to their own land. This was the word, as it was written and sent out:
"Thus saith Cyrus, the king of Persia, The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he has commanded me to build him a house in Jerusalem, in the land of Judah. Therefore, let those of the people of God who are among you go up to Jerusalem, and help to build the house of the Lord. And those who do not go to Jerusalem, but stay in the places where they are living, let them give to those who go back to their own land gifts of gold and silver, and beasts to carry them, and goods, and also a free gift toward the building of the house of the Lord in Jerusalem."
At this the Jews in the land of Chaldea were very glad, for they loved their own land, and longed to see it. One of them wrote a song at this time. It is Psalm 126:
"When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion,
We were like unto them that dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
And our tongue with singing.
Then said they among the nations,
'The Lord hath done great things for them,'
The Lord hath done great things for us;
Whereof we are glad.
Turn again our capitivity, O Lord,
As the streams in the South,
They that sow in tears
Shall reap in joy,
Though he goeth on his way weeping,
Bearing forth the seed,
He shall come again with joy,
Bringing his sheaves with him."
So the Jewish people began to make ready for going back to their own land. Those who were rich, and noble in rank, stayed in the land of Chaldea and in other lands of the Persian Empire. But though they did not go back to the land from which their fathers had come, they gave large gifts of gold and silver to help those who did go. And Cyrus, the king, took from the treasure-house in Babylon all the vessels of the Temple that had been taken away by Nebuchadnezzar, and gave them to the Jews, to be used in the new Temple which they were soon to build. These were plates, and dishes, and bowls, and cups of gold and silver, more than four thousand in all. So, with the gifts of the king, and the gifts of their own people, and what was owned by those who went to the land of Judah, the company took away a vast treasure of gold and silver.
It was a happy company of people that met together for the journey back to the land which they still called their own, though very few of them had seen it. There were forty-two thousand of them, besides their servants to help them in the journey. They traveled slowly up the Euphrates river, singing songs of joy, until they reached the northern end of the great desert. Then they turned toward the southwest, and journeyed beside the Lebanon mountains, past Damascus, and through Syria, until at last they came to the land of their fathers, the land of Judah.
With all their joy they must have felt sad when they saw the city of Jerusalem all in ruins, its walls broken down, its houses heaps of blackened stone, its once beautiful Temple burned into a heap of ashes.
As soon as they came, they found the rock where the altar of the Lord had stood, the same rock where David had long before offered a sacrifice, and the same rock upon which travelers look even in our time under the Dome of the Rock. From the smooth face of this rock they gathered up the stones, and swept away the ashes and the dust. Then they built upon it the altar of the Lord, and Joshua, the high-priest, began to offer the sacrifices which for fifty years had not been placed upon the altar. Every morning and every afternoon they laid on the altar the burnt-offering, and thus gave themselves to the Lord, and asked God's help.
From this time there were two branches of the Jewish race. Those who came back to the land of Judah, which was also called the land of Israel, were called "Hebrews," which was an old name of the Israelites. Those who stayed in the lands abroad, in Chaldea and throughout the empire of Persia, were called "the Jews of the Dispersion." There were far more of the Jews abroad than in their own land, and they were the richer, and the greater people. Many of them went up to Jerusalem to visit and to worship, and many others sent rich gifts; so that between the two great branches of the Jewish people, in their own land and in other lands, there was a close friendship, and they all felt wherever the Jews were they were still one people.
The Jews who had been captives in the land of Babylon were now free to go wherever they chose; and besides those who went back to the land of their fathers, there were many who chose to visit other lands, wherever they could find work and get gain. It was not many years before Jews were found in many cities of the Persian Empire. They went also to Africa; and also to Europe, choosing the cities for their home rather than the country. Everywhere, in all the great cities, the "Jews of the Dispersion" were found, besides those who were living in their own land of Israel.
When the Jews came back to their land their leader was named Zerubbabel, a word which means "One born in Babylon." He belonged to the family of David, and was called "the prince"; but he ruled under the commands of Cyrus, the great king, for Judah (which now began to be spoken of as Judea) was a small part, or "province" as it was called, in the great empire of Persia.