I was chatting with one of our people here at the church about the sermon series we’re doing on the book of Nehemiah. We’ve been studying Nehemiah since the first of the year and are just about to finish it up.
One of the things that we chatted about was the implication that the Ark of the Covenant – the golden box that symbolized God’s relationship with the Jews – was missing. The Ark seems to have been a casualty of war when the Jews were taken to Babylonia. Not only is the Ark not mentioned after the Jewish exile, but it is notably absent from the depiction of Emperor Titus’ sacking of Jerusalem contained on the Arch of Titus in Rome.
The tragedy of this loss is profound. The Ark was the symbol of God’s relationship to the Jews and presence among them. After they returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt the Temple, and even rebuilt the walls, they must have been excruciatingly disappointed that their Temple was – in essence – empty.
That is the real judgment of God upon Israel and Judah. After hundreds of years of God telling his people (through his ‘prosecuting attorneys,’ the prophets) that the people should “shape up, or ship out.” The people did not shape up. So God shipped them out. Now the death, destruction, and displacement of The Exile is one sort of judgment. But after rebuilding Jerusalem, the true horror of God’s judgment becomes apparent: God is no longer with us.
And this is affirmed in the structure of Isaiah’s prophecy. The first 39 chapters are Isaiah’s statement that the Jews are 'hardened, blatant sinners headed off to exile and death.' Then, suddenly, Isaiah begins chapter 40 with words of comfort. And he signals when that comfort would come in verse 3: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” For Christians, it’s pretty clear whose voice this is: John the Baptizer (Matthew 3:1-3). So what does this mean? There are two descriptions of historic periods given by Isaiah. The first is the Exile given in chapters 1 through 39. The second is the coming of Messiah heralded by John the Baptizer in chapters 40 through 66. Note there is – for Isaiah – silence about God’s dealing with the Jews from the point of the Exile to the point of Messiah’s coming.
A Psalm (22), recognized at the time as being about Messiah, begins with these thoughts: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” Several hundred years prior to the Exile, King David had connected a sense of separation from God with a promise of Messiah.
And that’s the true judgment of God for the Jews: a partial separation. For Ezra, Nehemiah, and the others of this period, things look very bleak. Of course, several hundred years after the Exile, Jesus – on the cross – uttered the opening sentence to show that he was the fulfillment of that promise.
Still, some interesting things happen during that post-Exile time. First, the people – recognizing the severity of their judgment – resolve “Never again!” There forms a revival movement to obedience of God’s commands. The reasoning is clear: “If God judged us because of our disobedience, then we will make absolutely sure that we obey from now on!” This movement led to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.
At the same time, many scholars believe that Ezra restored the scriptures, re-instituted Temple worship and sacrifice, and generally provided the intellectual leadership to revitalize Judaism. The difference is so striking that today scholars refer to “Second Temple Judaism.” From the time of Ezra to the time of Jesus, Judaism never again fell into the idolatry that plagued them from the time of Solomon’s death until The Exile (“First Temple Judaism”).
Additionally, Temple worship became so consistent and coherent that another movement arose that recognized and affirmed the power of Temple worship – Sadducees. While Pharisees emphasized Bible and obedience, Sadducees emphasized the Temple. These are gross generalizations, but my intent is to help you understand why the two groups formed and what they became by the time Jesus came around.
My point here is to recognize that this time of Ezra and Nehemiah seemed – to the people that lived it – a depressing, tragic, and empty time. But in fact, it was the seeds for a revival of Jewish religion that remained strong even after the Jews were crushed by Rome in 70 A.D.