This post is part of a series on explaining the whole bible.
The kingdom of Judah ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of the brightest young people to Babylon. However, Jeremiah had predicted that the exile would last only 70 years, and Isaiah even predicted a king named Cyrus would be the one to return the Jews to their homeland. It turned out that both were exactly right.
The Jewish people spent 70 years in exile, and during that time much of the biblical account revolves around the life of a man named Daniel. Daniel was among the most gifted young kids who were deported. He so impressed the kings that he quickly joined the ranks of the most highly influential individuals in the kingdom.
The Babylonians were conquered by the Medes and they by the Persians, but Daniel remained a key leader regardless of kingdom changes–quite a testimony to the character of Daniel and the power of God.
Return to Jerusalem
After the 70 years were up, Cyrus, king of Persia decreed that the Jewish people should be given the right to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. He sent them out with his own support and financial resources. The two key leaders during this time were Ezra and Nehemiah. Their stories are recounted in the books named after them. The majority of Ezra’s leadership went toward the rebuilding of the temple while Nehemiah focused his leadership on the rebuilding of the walls around Jerusalem. Both of them, however, were instrumental in sparking the people to return to Jerusalem and to renew their spiritual commitment to God and the law of Moses in the process.
The years of their leadership were marked by spiritual revival and renewal.
Meanwhile in Persia
Not all the Jews returned to the land of Israel, however. Some stayed back in Persia for many reasons, and the book of Esther tells the story of how God used the bravery of a young woman (Esther) to rescue the Jews from potential genocide at the hands of the persian king. Nevertheless, after Esther, we lose track of the Jews who remained in Persia, and in fact, the story of Esther is chronologically the last event to be recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures.
To be sure, there are some Jewish writings that claim to be a record of the events bridging the gap between Esther and Jesus, and those writings seem to be historically accurate, but they never claimed to be Scripture and the Jews never treated them with the same kind of reverence and respect as they did the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Placing the prophets chronologically in the midst of the historical narrative is at times difficult, and so I’ve reserved discussion of them until now. Additionally, discussing the purpose and message of the prophets is not an easy topic to address because the poetic and metaphorical contents of their message engender debate. Nevertheless, I’m going to deal with what I see are the biggest themes in the prophetic message.
There are three categories of prophets in the canon of Hebrew Scripture. Those who operated during the time of the kings are called pre-exilic and those who operated after are called post exilic referring to the exile of the southern kingdom to Babylon.
Regardless of when they wrote, all the prophets spoke of God’s total supremacy over all things and our human need to be fully surrendered to him, but there were major differences in the other topics of prophecy depending on whether the prophet was writing before the exile or after.
Before the exile the prophets mainly focused on proclaiming the coming judgment on any nation that neglected God. Sometimes they would beg for repentance from the people. Sometimes they would speak of a future Day of the Lord when all things would be judged and justice would finally and fully come, but the majority of their prophecies were focused on the fact that God judges individuals and nations, and no one is exempt.
After the exile the prophets spoke mostly of the coming Day of the Lord, speaking of cataclysmic cosmic events and a wonderful time of peace and prosperity for God’s people. However, not all their words focused on the future. They continued to emphasize the need for God’s people to honor him and exercise justice.
Finally, a few of the prophets began to recognize in their prophecies a figure who would embody the fulfillment of all the other prophecies. They were looking for a king like David, a prophet like Moses, and a priest like Aaron. For these prophets, the prophet, priest, and king sometimes coalesced into one individual known as the Messiah which means “Anointed One” in Hebrew, and is translated “Christ” in Greek.
See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. — Isaiah 52:13