What happens when people continually reject every call from God? The Lord’s mercy was extended over Israel for only a period of time and because of their disobedience and idolatry, God’s judgment and persecution was sure to arrive. “In every age it is a temptation for a religious faith to assume God’s blessing and mercy will continue the same no matter what people do… It is better for people to forsake their wicked ways and evil thoughts and rely on God. Israel did not learn that lesson and paid the price of awful judgment for it” (Fettke, 2007, p. 101). The political and religious policies of Israel’s kings led directly to God’s judgment. Jeroboam could have been an instrument of blessing for Israel. He was divinely chosen and given promises that his dynasty would continue and prosper if he trusted and obeyed the Lord. He did not trust, nor did he obey the Lord. Instead, he committed many serious sins that led the Israelites to turn from God rather than to Him. He was the first of twenty kings, not one of which would lead the people back to God. Jeroboam did not trust in God’s promise and was worried that the people of the north would go south to Jerusalem in Judah to worship God. By doing so, he was concerned that the people would be persuaded to follow Rehoboam instead of him. To insure that this would not happen, he placed two golden calves in the north, one in Bethel and one in Dan to be worshipped. “Religiously, Jeroboam sinned in the sight of God by establishing substitute worship for his northern people” (Wood & O’Brien, 1986, p. 258). In doing so, he only led his people further into idolatry by establishing his own priesthood and creating his own annual festival 3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand [generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:3-6).
Jeroboam’s promises from God were contingent upon him trusting and obeying the Lord. Since he chose to do neither, in I Kings 14, under King Baasha’s reign, we hear the prophet Ahijiah speak of a king that would be raised up to cut off Jeroboam’s family. God promised to uproot the nation from the good land that He gave to their forefathers and to scatter them beyond the Euphrates River. King Baasha, like his father, was evil, so evil, that he killed his own father and all of Jeroboam’s living family members. He reigned for twenty-four years and continued to do evil in the eyes of the Lord. Regardless of who the king was, the story stayed the same because they continued to do evil in the eyes of the Lord. Even King Zimri, who was only king for 7 days, is remembered as an evil king.
The historian listed several reasons for Israel’s judgment and exile. Israel followed the practices of the nation and did things secretly against the Lord. They practiced idolatry and rejected God’s law and His prophets: “Their easy acceptance of pagan deities and their failure to seek God and obey God’s commandments resulted in the eventual destruction of the nation” (Fettke, 2007, p.103). As a result, God sent the Assyrian army as “the rod of His anger” (Isaiah 10:5). The saddest part of this story is that things are no different today; in many ways, things are even worse. In today’s world, we have the same type of deception and idolatry that led to Israel’s fall. Jesus tells us in the New Testament, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40) Today, more than ever, we still need people like the prophets of the Old Testament to have the courage to stand up and oppose the lies and idolatry of corrupt rulers.
Jeremiah’s prophetic words were about to come to pass after seventy years of Babylonian exile. The book of Ezra, in conjunction with Nehemiah, records the fulfillment of God’s promise to restore his people to their land after their Babylonian captivity. “The overall themes of the books are the restoration of the Jewish people—both physically and spiritually” (Breneman, 2005, p. 6). Even during the Israelites’ exile, God was still present with His people. “Just as judgment was sure because of their sins, so restoration was sure because of God’s mercy and faithfulness and covenant promise” (Fettke, 2007, p. 107). In this story of restoration, we learn that God can use anything and anyone to accomplish His will, as He did with King Cyrus of Persia. Here, God uses a pagan king, someone who does not even worship Yahweh, to defeat the Babylonians and restore the people of God to their promise land. King Cyrus not only issues a decree to allow the captives to return home; he tells them to rebuild their homes and their temple (Isaiah 45:13). Through God’s providential grace and mercy, the Israelites were able to preserve their faith and traditions while in exile. Most of the Israelites returned to their homeland where another test of faith was waiting.
Upon arriving back to their homeland, the postexilic community seemed to quickly forget about God’s goodness and how the Lord delivered them out of exile. They were only concerned about rebuilding their homes and not the temple. One of the many problems the Israelites ran into was when they were taken captive, over the years, people had settled in their homeland and the new inhabitants were not happy about the returning captives.
One of the main concerns the postexilic community had was maintaining the Mosaic and Abrahamic covenant. Prophets of the time had three main jobs: expose idolatry, announce judgment, and give hope. Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Malachi all preached these principles, but each of them focused on one primary thing as their main message. Haggai and Ezra arrived on the scene and motivated the Israelites to rebuild the temple, which by doing so would reestablish their faith. During the siege, the temple was the last thing to be destroyed, when the nation fell into captivity, and so it seemed fitting that their first act was to build an altar on the original temple site in the midst of the ruins. The temple was also the first place where God began to set about the work of restoration with His people. “Ezra played a key role in preserving the Jewish people from being corrupted by a pagan environment. He was commissioned by Artaxerxes to leave Babylon and take charge of the religious affairs of the Jews in Judah” (Brubaker, 2003, p. 813). He was the man for the job; he was a descendant of Aaron, Israel’s first high priest and he was a scribe well versed in the Torah of Moses, which Jews were governed by. His last qualification sealed the deal; “the hand of the Lord his God was on him (Ezra 7:6, 11).
Nehemiah’s concern over the condition of Jerusalem broke and burdened his heart when he would hear reports. In chapter one we learn that he was the cupbearer to the king and that he prayed for an opportunity to rebuild the wall and for the chance to gain the king’s favor. “Nehemiah’s vision wasn’t so much about rebuilding a wall as it was about reestablishing a context for God to demonstrate his power and fulfill His promises to the nations” (Stanley, 1999, p. 97). Whenever a follower of Christ stands up and says, “I will arise and build,” Satan always says, “Then I will arise and oppose.” Satan continually tries to destroy or counterfeit anything God stands for and he can’t stand it when God’s children turn back to Him. Satan attempted to rise up the Ammonites, Amorites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, and the Perizzites to hinder the Israelites reconciliation with God. The surrounding neighbors of Jerusalem even attempted to stop the building of the wall by humiliating the people and planning an attack against the city. Nehemiah remained faithful and he prayed to the Lord for help (Nehemiah 4:1-23). He didn’t just pray that the wall would be constructed; he prayed that God would use him in the construction and he encouraged the people to remain faithful by also praying to the Lord for help and by wisely advising them to continue their building efforts, while being ready to fight their enemies. To this day, the enemy still tries his schemes, but as children of the Most High God, we are over comers, we are conquerors, we are soldiers, and we are warriors because the hand of the Lord is upon us. “Nehemiah’s story, not his presence, was the thing that convinced his audience the time to rebuild had finally arrived. It wasn’t his vision that moved them to action; it was the news that God had acted on their behalf” (Stanley, 1999, p. 103). Many tried to stop God’s plan and Sanallat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arab were no match because “Our God will fight for us!” (Nehemiah 4:20).
The Book of Haggai contains four sermons the prophet delivered to the returned exiles in 520 B.C. “We know from what he said that the people had turned from their commitment to rebuild the temple to constructing comfortable houses for themselves” (Constable, 2010, p. 23). After an early stage of construction on the foundation, opposition from the community stopped any future progress. With the work on the temple not proceeding, the people began to pursue their own selfish interests again, so in Haggai’s first sermon he rebukes them for having their priorities all wrong. He tells the Israelites to consider their ways and gave them two motivations for completing the work: to please the Lord and to glorify the Lord, so God could dwell among them again.
“The temple was completed under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Haggai, and Zechariah in 516 B.C. But almost 100 years had passed, and whatever reforms had been instituted were presently being ignored and as a result, spiritual apathy had set in. The people were disregarding the priests and the temple, they were not bringing their tithes and offerings and there was intermarriage with foreigners and divorce taking place” (Hampton, bible.org).
God used the prophets as His messengers and most major changes in Israel’s history were preceded by revelations from God. Rarely did He act without first giving warning through a prophet. That is why most prophets confronted the people about their apathy and complacency. It is amazing to me that even today we have such selective memory about history. Reading through scriptures it seems as though every generation makes the same mistakes as the past ones. In Amos, chapter three, we learn that Israel’s punishment was inevitable and because of their sins, God would not turn back His wrath. Even after their exile we read about the old and comfortable routine taking over, yet again. “Malachi’s prophecy indicts the religious leadership of the day and chides God’s people for their spiritual apathy and their skepticism and cynicism concerning God’s plan for their future. It also calls the people to correct their wrong attitudes of worship by trusting God with genuine faith as living Lord. Furthermore, it warns the people of their immoral behavior toward one another and calls for their repentance lest they be terrorized at the coming of the Lord” (Taylor & Clendenen, 2004, p. 231).