Here we see 3 returns from Babylon ( present day Iraq) led by 3 men of God and later the revolt of the Maccabees during the inter-testament period ( the 400 years between the end of the OT and the beginning the NT) .
Our Biblical text comes from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah ( which were actually treated as one book in the Tanakh and Septuagint) and take place between c. 538 B.C. and c. 420 B.C. during the reign of the Persian kings Cyrus and Artaxerxes 1. For some more historical context it is of note that this was the same general time period when Gautama Buddha was in India, Confucius in China and Socrates in Greece.
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem. And whoever is left in any place where he dwells, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.” Ezra 1:2-4
The first six chapters of the Book of Ezra record the return of Zerubbabel to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple which he eventually did. The last four chapters record Ezra’s return which was more to rebuild the spiritual condition of the people.
Nehemiah, a cupbearer for King Artaxerxes, led the third return in order to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem for in those times and culture a city was no real city without walls. Nehemiah was twice appointed governor of Judah ( the region surrounding Jerusalem) and focused on political restoration as well as spiritual. He inspired the people to “Rise up and Build” - something we as the Church can challenge ourselves to do today:
“Then I said to them, “You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach.” And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me, and also of the king’s words that he had spoken to me. So they said, “Let us rise up and build.” Then they set their hands to this good work.” Nehemiah 2:17-18
Zerubbabel’s temple was later desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire ( part of the former empire of Alexander the Great), c. 169 B.C. According to Josephus, he built an altar to Zeus in the Temple and had pigs sacrificed on the Temple’s altar – a blatant and insidious insult to the Levitical Law.
This set the stage for the revolt of the Maccabees ( a small Jewish army) around 166 B.C. Instigated at first by a Jewish priest, Mattathias the Hasmonean , and later carried out fully by his son, a warrior named Judas Maccabee, the revolt succeeded and led to the rededication of the Temple. It is this rededication, and the story of the one-day supply of oil to light the Menorah lasting eight days, which is celebrated during Hanukkah.
The reign of the Hasmonean Dynasty lasted until the Roman Emperor, Pompey, captured Jerusalem in 63 B.C.
The next article here: Era 5 - Jesus and His Disciples
Gustave Doré, Nehemiah Views the Ruins of Jerusalem's Walls, 1866.Gustave Doré, Nehemiah Views the Ruins of Jerusalem's Walls, 1866.
Judah from "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum"