They Didn't All Return
In Ezra 1:1-3 Cyrus, the king of Persia, sent out a decree throughout his entire kingdom saying “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel – he is the God who is in Jerusalem.”
In Ezra 1:5 he records “Then rose up the heads of the father’s houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem. The second chapter of Ezra records for us all those who decided to return back to Jerusalem.
What’s interesting is how many people returned back to Jerusalem. In Ezra 2:64 it says “The whole assembly together was 42,360, besides their male and female servants…” On the surface that seems like a large number of people and a great turnout. What’s interesting is that not everyone decided to return back to their true homes.
We know that when Israel was delivered out of Egypt that they roughly numbered around 2.5 million. The tribe of Asher by itself numbered 41,500 in the census taken in Numbers 1. While we realize that the entire northern kingdom of Israel has been destroyed and led away by the Assyrians and that many of the southern kingdom of Judah would have perished during the Babylonian siege, in comparison that’s a small number of people returning.
I can’t speculate as to the total number of people that made up that nation of Israel while in captivity but we know from Jeremiah’s letter to the in Jeremiah 29 that they were told to “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do no decrease.” (Jer. 29:5-6)
It’s evident that many didn’t return and decided to stay. Why? I’ve always had this image in my mind of the horrific scene of captivity and how they must have been miserable and that they must have had their bags packed eagerly awaiting to return back to the homeland. After all this was punishment for their rebellion. And Ezra 1:5 shows that some were eagerly awaiting the day they could return home, young and old.
I have no definite answer to the question of why many decided to stay and why they wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to return. We can realize that much of Israel in captivity is a new generation and didn’t remember being led away into captivity. As a result of that there could have been a natural disconnect of appreciation of where they once came from, at least for some.
Another possibility is that they had just become comfortable and content in captivity and leaving their lives there wasn’t worth giving up. In a lot of ways that’s a testament to man in general in that we too often find comfort in a world that we don’t belong. We find more comfort and contentment with those outside the body of Christ than we do with those inside. We find more comfort and contentment with the things of this world than the spiritual.
I’m not saying that everyone who did not return was not faithful to the Lord. We can’t make such judgments as we do not know all the facts nor their hearts. But we can appreciate those whose hearts were stirred and moved to do the work of the Lord and lead Israel back to the pattern and calling of our God. We can appreiciate their courage in faicing the many obstacles they encountered and their determination to not only complete the tasks but to offer worship “as it was written” and “according to the directions” that the Lord had given.
Let’s be people who strive to have hearts ready to serve and use the many opportunities we are given to share the good news of our Savior Jesus Christ and worship the Lord “as it is written.”