By J.G. Bellet
Being studies and meditations on the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.
The Babylonish Captivity, considered as an era in the progress of Divine dispensations, was most important and significant. We may well treat it as a very principal station in our journey along that path of light and wisdom which is cast up in Scripture for God's wayfaring men to tread, and tarry there for a little and look around us.
We may speak of it, generally, as the great conclusive judgment upon the people of Israel in Old Testament times; but it was preceded by a long series of other judgments of an inferior or less weighty character. And it is well to trace them shortly, that we may be moved and humbled by such a sight as they afford us of the incompetence and unfaithfulness of man under every condition of stewardship and responsibility.
These judgments began, I may say, by the retirement of Moses for forty years in the land of Midian. Israel, then in Egypt, lost their deliverer, because they knew not that by his hand God would redeem them, as we read in Acts 7: 25.
After they left Egypt, and got into the wilderness on their way to Canaan, they were doomed or judged for another forty years to wander there, because they did not receive the report of the Spies, but disesteemed the Promised Land.
When they have reached Canaan and are settled as a nation there, they are for renewed iniquity chastised again and again by the hand of their neighbours, but at length are more signally judged by being put under the tyranny of King Saul (see Hosea 13: 11).
In process of time they flourish into a kingdom: God gives them the choicest of His people, the man after His own heart, to reign over them. This was one of God's gifts; Saul had been one of His judgments. The reigns of David and Solomon were the exhibition of strength and honour in Israel. But, the house of David becoming reprobate, judgment visits it by the revolt of the Ten Tribes.
The kingdom of the Ten Tribes is thus erected--erected as a judgment upon the house of David, as the kingdom of Saul had afore been raised in judgment on the nation of Israel. But that kingdom of the Ten Tribes proving reprobate in that day, judgment visits them (carrying Israel captive) by the king of Assyria.
The house of David, during this time, was borne with. As a dismantled thing, having but two tribes instead of twelve as its inheritance, it still provokes the anger of the Lord; and then judgment visits Judah by the hand of the Chaldean, as before judgment had visited Israel by the hand of the Assyrian. Judah is a captive in Babylon. So this, as I said, was the great conclusive judgment upon the people of God during the times of the Old Testament. The Lord God of Israel had linked His Name and His glory with the house of David, and with the city of Jerusalem; and when that house had fallen and that city was spoiled, judgment in that measure and at that time had completed its work.
Our business from henceforth is with the captives of Judah and Babylon: Israel in Assyria are lost sight of. They are not kept in view by the Spirit of God. They are called "backsliding Israel," as a people whose distinctness, for the present, is lost and gone; but the prophets of God anticipate their future, and we can foresee that they will be manifested, and brought home, and set in their place again in honour and beauty.
Ere looking at the captives of Judah in Babylon, I would consider the new conditions in which all things are set by the captivity itself. The glory (the symbol of the Divine presence), the Gentile, and the Jew, are all affected by it, and at once enter into new conditions.
The glory leaves the earth, and goes to heaven. It had been with Israel from the days of Egypt until now. It had seated itself in the chariot-cloud, and led Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness; and then it seated itself in the sanctuary between the cherubim. Israel was the place or people of its dwelling upon the earth. But now, as was seen by Ezekiel, it takes its leave of the earth for heaven, or for the mountain (Ezek. 1-11).
The Gentiles become supreme in the time of Judah's captivity. The sword is formally and solemnly put into the hand of the Chaldean by God Himself; and subjection to him, as ordained to be chief in political or imperial authority in the world, is demanded by God for him. But the glory does not accompany the sword. Chaldea is not the seat of theocracy; divine worship is not established there.
The people of Israel become strangers on the earth. "Ichabod," the glory is departed, in a more fearful sense than ever, becomes true of them. They are ruined for the present, as a nation once set in glory, honour, strength, and independency. Judah is a captive and stranger.
Such are the new conditions into which all have now entered--the glory, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel.
But here I must notice--for it is a subject full of interest and value to our souls--that there is character unfolded in each of these, by reason of their new conditions.
The glory shows itself most graciously reluctant to leave its ancient dwelling-place. We learn this from the early chapters of Ezekiel; the glory is there seen in uneasy restless action, as I may say. The time had come for its leaving Jerusalem, and it feels the sorrow of such a moment. It passes and repasses between the threshold of the house, which still connected it with the temple, and the wings of the cherubim, which were waiting to bear it away; and this is a sight of deep mysterious consolation. What a secret does it carry to our hearts! The holiness, which must depart, could not cool the love which would fain, if it could, remain, and what a shadow of the Jesus of the Evangelists this is! Israel could not be the rest of either the glory or Jesus. They were polluted; but the glory will linger on the threshold, and Jesus will weep, as He turns His back on the city. Nor will the glory seek any other place on the earth. It had chosen Zion for its rest; and if its rest there be disturbed, it will leave the earth; it will be faithful to Israel, though Israel grieve it and send it away. These are the perfections that give character to the glory, as I may speak, in this the day of its departure from Jerusalem--the day of Judah's captivity in Babylon.
The Gentiles, in this same day, betray a far different sight. No moral beauty distinguishes them--altogether otherwise. They become proud. Elevation under God's hand lifts them up in their own esteem. They have no care for the sorrows of God's people, but avail themselves of their depression, and rise, all they can, upon their ruins. Ezekiel shows us, as we have already seen, the moral or the character of the departing glory, as Daniel shows us the profane haughtiness of the Gentiles in this same day. It becomes intolerable, as we know, and ends in judgment.
The people of Israel, now humbled, are exercised. Ps. 137 is a breathing which speaks a very gracious state of the soul, in the midst of the captives at the waters of Babylon; and such men as Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, among the returned, and such as Esther and Mordecai, among the dispersion, tell us of a generation or a remnant in character beyond what may have been commonly known in Israel; and thus, as is common with men, prosperity did moral mischief to the Gentile at this time, while depression and trial worked healthfully for the Jew.
This interval of a captivity must, however, come to a close. The rod of the tribe of Judah could not be broken till Shiloh came (Gen. 49). To fulfil this promise, rehearsed in various ways as it was again and again by the prophets, Judah must return out of captivity, and be at home, to receive, if they will, the promised Messiah--the One who, as we see in Ezekiel, had left them, with such reserve and reluctance.
A return is therefore accomplished; and it is marked by much of the fruit of that healthful exercise, which I have already observed as giving character to the captives. There was nothing of the same glory as that which marked their earlier return from the land of Pharaoh. In that respect the exodus from Babylon was a thing very inferior to the exodus from Egypt. There was no rod of power to do its marvels; no mystic cloud-conductor; no mediator standing in intimacy with the Lord for the people; no supplies from the granaries in heaven. But there was the energy of faith on the journey; and spirits awake to the presence of God, His mind, His will, His glory, and His sufficiency for them.
This return, however, was not universal; nor, even as far as it extended, was it simultaneous. There was still the dispersion, as well as the returned captives. The books of the captives--Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, give us something of the story of each. Mordecai was of the dispersion; and of those who returned, some came at an earlier moment, like Zerubbabel; others afterwards, like Ezra at one time, and Nehemiah at another.
But I would inquire, Under what warrant or authority were the captives in Babylon enabled to make a return? It will be said, and justly, that God had so purposed and promised it by the mouth of His servant Jeremiah. He had declared that, when the captivity had numbered seventy years, it should end; and, according to this, Daniel, who lived through the whole age of the captivity, but never returned to Jerusalem, made his supplication for this promised mercy, just as the seventy years were drawing near to their close. The return, we therefore fully own, is to be dated, so to speak, from the sovereignty and counsels of God. The great source of it lies there. But there was a secondary and more immediate warrant for it, the occasion of it, as we speak; and this is, as clearly, seen in the decree of Cyrus, the king of Persia: a decree which he passed in the very first year of his reign, or as soon as God had transferred the sword from the hand of the Chaldean into his hand.
Babylon, which had been the captor, was not given the honour of being the deliverer of Israel. This honour was reserved for another, and such another as was as distinctly named by the prophets of God, as the period of seventy years had been named.
Cyrus is mentioned in Isa. 44 and 45; his own very name appears there, and had been there two or three hundred years ere he was born. And he is mentioned as the one who was to be the builder of the Temple at Jerusalem. We cannot say that it was so, but we may suggest that he heard of this amazing fact from some of the captives; and if he did, was it not the instrument by which the Lord stirred up his spirit? And enough, and more than enough, it was to put him upon that great and generous action which he accomplished, and the record of which closes the Books of Chronicles, and opens the Book of Ezra.*
*It has been reported that Alexander, the Grecian, was shown the prophecy of Daniel, which respected himself. Cyrus, the Persian, may in like manner have been shown this prophecy of Isaiah.
We may rather wonder at his not doing more, if he ever had a sight of those divine oracles, than at his doing so much. We might expect that he would himself have become a proselyte; for Isaiah there lets him know, that it was none other than the God of that people (who were then his subjects, and, as I may say, his captives), who had gone before him to clear his way to conquest and dominion.
But be this so or not, his decree, as we know, was the immediate cause, and the full authority for their return.
Further, however, as to this great event and era, the times of the Gentiles, as the Lord Himself speaks, began with the Babylonish captivity; the Gentiles then became supreme, as we have already said, one kingdom succeeding another. And these times of the Gentiles continue still. The return from Babylon has made no difference as to this; for that event left Gentile supremacy unaffected. But these times will end in the judgment of the Apocalyptic beast, and his confederates (Rev. 19), when the stone cut out without hands smites the image.
And we may further say, as to Israel, that this captivity worked a reformation among them. From that time to the present "the unclean spirit," as the Lord Himself also speaks, has been "out." Idolatry has not been practised since then; but though the Jewish house be thus emptied and swept, it is not furnished with its true wealth and ornament.* Messiah has not been accepted; and, in principle, Israel have returned to Babylon, where they will remain, till the day of redemption and the kingdom under the grace and power and presence of the Lord Jesus.
*By and by, the unclean spirit is to return, and, bringing other unclean spirits with him more wicked than himself, perfect the apostacy of the Jew, and lead him to judgment again.