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A Remnant Shall Return

For 490 years the nation of Israel denied their land its sabbath rest every seventh year. It is a strange commentary on practically the entire period of the monarchy. It was just one of the many divine injunctions which Israel saw fit to ignore. But God watches over His word to perform it. Therefore the land was finally emptied of the faithless nation in the seventh year of Zedekiah and Judah was carried to Babylon for seventy years "until the land had enjoyed her

Sabbaths: for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfil threescore and ten years " (2 Chronicles 36.21).

It was not that Israel had no prophets to remonstrate with them. Hosea, who was contemporary with Isaiah throughout the reigns of four kings of Judah, said on the LORD'S behalf, Therefore have I hewed them by the prophets" (6.5). God had His prophets in both expressions of the divided monarchy, men who were trenchant in their ministry and dedicated in their acts of supreme self-discipline men who denounced the spiritual, moral, and social evils of their day.

For example, in the reign of Jeroboam II, Hosea, Amos and Jonah all prophesied within the kingdom of Israel, and others at other periods. Yet, after all his ministry, Hosea may well have watched Israel go into captivity to Assyria in the ninth year of Hoshea's reign, for that was Hezekiah's sixth year in Judah, and Hosea prophesied with Isaiah during that good king's reign.

Isaiah clearly foresaw the captivity of the nation. He saw it predicted in Leviticus 26.33-35. He saw it depicted in visions of God. He wrote of" the razor" who would shave them; of " the rod of Mine anger, the staff in whose hand is Mine indignation." He wrote also of the punishment in God's own time of that same cruel "rod," by one Cyrus, "My shepherd," who would say of ruined Jerusalem, " She shall be built," of a remnant that would " return, even the remnant of Jacob, unto the mighty God," and of the coming glory of Messiah's reign. Well did Murray MeCheyne call it, "Isaiah's grand measure," and we are the poorer today if we neglect such rich seams.

Jeremiah came on the scene more than seventy years later and for forty years God pleaded with His people through him. It was a dark day in treacherous Judah, when "from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely." And as the LORD looked down on the Zion He loved and had chosen, He saw incense rise in idolatry to the host of heaven which His own hand had made. In its streets He saw also a horrible thing - children gathering wood, fathers kindling fires, women kneading dough to make cakes and all for the non-existent queen of heaven. No wonder Jeremiah wrote but little of Israel's coming glory. He lived too near to her day of doom.

It was given to Jeremiah, in the day when there was" no remedy," to watch the final overthrow of the Holy City, the desecrating of the Temple, and the merciless slaughter of "young man or maiden, old man or ancient" at the cruel hand of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, the " razor," the " rod." Strangely enough, Jeremiah was left behind with the poorest of the land who were not deemed worth taking the Tong journey east. And as the retreating armies of the invaders faced the horizon, the prophet took his melancholy walk through the streets of the city which God and he loved. She was sitting solitary. Her ways seemed to be mourning, and little wonder, for her precious sons, comparable once to fine gold, lay dead in her streets. Here and there were children, seeking bread with none to break it to them. And the stones of Solomon's beautiful temple were "poured out at the top of every street." So the eyes of the dear, aged servant of God poured down tears and ceased not, "without any intermission." Then with a heavy heart he reached for his pen again, and wrote "The Lamentations of Jeremiah." He had lamented for Josiah in his decease, but there had never been such a death as the death of Zion and all it stood for.

There is a word of deepest pathos, in Jeremiah 43.7, "And they came into the land of Egypt; for they obeyed not the voice of the LORD." This relates to the little group of the poor whom the Chaldean invaders left behind. They appointed to themselves a captain and, taking Jeremiah with them, departed for Egypt. There ends the precaptivity history of a people whom God called, "Israel My glory"; they were back in the land of Egypt where their great Lover found them a thousand years before. He had taken them out of Egypt in a night, but not after a millennium's gentle entreaty had He been able t) take Egypt out of them.

One of Isaiah's many choice prophecies, written in chapter 44 perhaps around two hundred years before the event, was of the drying up of the deeps which lay between Babylon and Immanuel's land, of the re-inhabiting of Jerusalem in its rebuilt waste places, and of the chosen vessel who would perform the divine pleasure in this-one Cyrus, My shepherd."

Further, one of Jeremiah's remarkable prophecies was made in the very first year of Gentile power, some 18 years before the final carrying away into Babylon. For 28 years he had been rising up early and speaking to Judah on God's behalf, but they would not hear. Jeremiah therefore proclaims the doom of the nation, names the nation and its king who would conquer them, then prescribes precisely the duration of their captivity and the consequent destruction of their captors.

Well might we pause to marvel at the majesty of God and say truly, "How great Thou art! " Known to Him are all His works from the beginning of the world. And as we contemplate all in retrospect, how tragic it was that a deceived heart should have turned great Israel aside from the ways of so great a God, to mingle themselves with the nations, learn their works and serve their worthless idols!

Such reflections engaged also the mind of that outstanding prophet of Judah's captivity - Daniel. He had been carried away in the first of the two visitations in which the LORD gave Judah's kings into the hand of the Babylonians. They were sad days. By the rivers of Babylon the exiles sat down, hanging their harps on the willows. They remembered Zion. Meantime Jerusalem too was remembering

in the days of her affliction and of her miseries all her pleasant things that were from the days of old." (See Lamentations 1.7). They were remembering when it was too late for remedy.

Yet even in Babylon, God was not without witness and Daniel shared with Ezekiel the great prophetic office in the days of the captivity. He was a man of high birth, but in a dynasty which had forfeited its right to continuity. Coniah had been written childless by the stern prophet in Jerusalem. Not that he had no children, but he was henceforth childless in relation to the throne. And Israel would "abide many days without king," till Shiloh would come, and to Him would the gathering of the peoples be, for which she still waits.

Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, Daniel 9. These are the great chapters of confession of the children of the captivity. The last was first in order of time. Daniel was clearly a separated man amid all his administrative cares in the state of Babylon, a man of deep piety, a student of the Holy Scriptures. And as he pondered Jeremiah's writings the period of the captives' stay became clear to him. The revelation drove him to confession, as he saw his own sin and that of his people contrasted with the faithfulness of the word of the covenant-keeping

God. His prayer was breathed in Babylon, where he kneeled, but centred on Jerusalem for which he longed. Hear his words, "... let Thine anger and Thy fury, I pray Thee, be turned away from Thy city Jerusalem, Thy holy mountain: ... and cause Thy face to shine upon Thy sanctuary that is desolate ... defer not; for Thine own sake, 0 my God, because Thy city and Thy people are called by Thy name."

Yes, "Thy city and Thy people" but now hundreds of miles lay between these, and a spiritual gulf wider than linear miles could measure. In the day of their opportunity their fathers had despised both the LORD and His dwelling-place, until the holy city and the condition of the people became so irreconcilable that the LORD demonstrated to them the spiritual separation which existed by physically removing them to Babylon. Yet despite all, He sent after them the tenderly-worded letter recorded in Jeremiah 29 with the sevenfold promise of restoration, "when ye shall search for Me with all your heart."

Through the gracious ministry of Daniel, God was thus preparing the hearts of some of the captives. to return to Him. His doctrine was dropping, His speech distilling, as the small rain on the tender grass of a generation of captives, many of whom had never seen Temple or City. Zerubbabel was one such, as his name suggests, "born in Babylon." Hearts were being prepared by the divine word for a stirring and release when God would move again in the kingdoms of men.

So Belshazzar died on the night when the message was read on the palace walls, and Darius the Mede received the kingdom. Current historians might have recorded that he took it. The divine record is clear that from God's hand he received it. The day of Babylon's doom had come, so long foretold by the prophets of Judah. The head of gold of Nebuchadnezzar's vision was giving place to the silver breast and arms of an inferior kingdom - two arms - Medes and Persians Darius the Mede and Cyrus the Persian. Actually the Persians dominated the Medes so that the well-being of captive Judah passed into the control of the great Cyrus of divine prediction.

One of the clay cylinders of Cyrus, preserved from that far-off day, makes interesting reading. "As I entered Babylon in peace, and established my royal residence in the palace of the princes amid jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, warmed the hearts of the Babylonians towards me, while I for my part devoted myself daily to do him reverence. My troops wandered peacefully widespread throughout Babylon. In all Sumer and Akkad I let no man be afraid. I concerned myself with the internal affairs of Babylon and all its cities. The dwellers in Babylon ... I freed from the yoke that ill became them. I repaired their houses, I healed their afflictions ... I am Cyrus, king of all, the great king, the mighty king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four corners of the earth ... A suitable commentary indeed on the Scriptural record! "Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath the LORD, the God of heaven, given me..." (2 Chronicles 36.28).

So the haughty daughter of Babylon sat down without a throne. Before Cyrus, the LORD'S anointed for the nations, the loins of kings were loosed and the treasures of darkness were all opened up. The great prophecies which had seemed to slumber for centuries were all being gloriously fulfilled. Shortly Cyrus would" let My exiles go free," and the first main purpose of his being raised up would be complete.

Judah's singers had hung their harps on Babylon's willows, for Zion's songs were for Zion only. The priesthood could attend no more on the altar; priestly service was possible in Zion only. David had rightly defined the temple, which his son would build, as "an house for the sanctuary." The nation, the kingdom, the house, the priesthood-these had all been integrated in the service of God which had centred on Zion. And the people of God in Babylon were as strangely out of place as the vessels of gold and silver from Solomon's temple which lay in Babylon's idol houses.

So the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus. He had all the appearance of a man sensitive to the overruling might of" the God of heaven." Not the God of Israel, for He had retired to His place till Israel would acknowledge their offence and seek His face, as Hosea had so graphically predicted. But in the seventy years of the desolations, the God of heaven was working out His sovereign purposes amongst the nations. To Nebuchadnezzar He was "the King of heaven."

The stirring of Cyrus was directed towards the rebuilding of the house of God in Jerusalem. That involved exercised Jews, wealth for the building and vessels for the house. He therefore called upon all the captivity of Judah to be exercised as to the long journey with such a glorious end in view-a dwelling place for God again among His people in Zion. These were to take with them their own freewill offerings for the building of the house and all the men of their places where they lived were to set them forward on their way with silver, gold and general goods and beasts for the journey. Not only so, but Cyrus himself brought out the vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem and handed them to the prince of the house of David who was leading back those with exercised hearts. He counted them out. They numbered 5,400.

But not only were the sacred vessels numbered and chronicled as a matter which touched the LORD'S heart; but so also were the returning captives. They were numbered thus

The whole congregation 42,360

Their menservants and maidservants 7,337

The singing men and women 200

A total of 49,897

Included in "the congregation" were 4,289 priests from 4 of the original 24 courses and a small company of 74 Levites. There were also 128 from the family of Asaph as compared with the 288 singers originally in Solomon's temple. Porters, servants, all were numbered even to the 8,136 animals which accompanied them. They were under the leadership of 11 men, although Nehemiah gives the names of 12 leaders. All Israel was in view, although they were but a remnant.

But this "whole congregation" was a choice company in the LORD'S eyes. These were men with exercised hearts for whom Babylon had no attractions. Their longings lay in the Zion of their fathers and to see a house built again as a place for the Divine Name. It would mean hard work, for the land was desolate and the Holy City was in ruins. But the promise stood recorded, "That saith of Jerusalem She shall be inhabited; and of the cities of Judah, They shall be' built, and I will raise up the waste places thereof." And in that confidence the exiles set out.

"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" (Psalm 126.1,2).

"Go ye forth of Babylon - flee ye from the Chaldeans; with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter it even to the end of the earth: say ye The LORD hath redeemed His servant Jacob. And they thirsted not when He led them through the deserts ... " (Isaiah 48.20, 21).

This was the first going up from Babylon. It was a " whole congregation," and in Ezra 3.9 (R.V.M.) a united oversight, men who were "as one, to have the oversight." And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, they had the priests and the singers in attendance " after the order of David, king of Israel." It was a remnant people in a day of small things, but they built to the order of David who had followed the specification of God. So they built again on the old foundations.