Returning to the Promised Land (Ezra 8) December 17-18
Chapter 8 gives more details about the journey of Ezra and the band of exiles who went with him to Jerusalem. "Verses 1-14 list those who accompanied Ezra from Mesopotamia, including the descendants of 15 individuals. The figures of the men listed total 1,496, in addition to the individuals named. There were also a considerable number of women and children (v. 21). An additional group of about 40 Levites (vv. 18-19) and of 220 'temple servants' (v. 20) are also listed" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verse 1). The distinction "last sons of Adonikam" in verse 13 may indicate that these were following other family members who had returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel 80 years earlier (see 2:13).
The river of Ahava, the departure point, was probably a canal a short distance outside Babylon. "'The canal that flows toward Ahava' probably flowed into either the Euphrates or the Tigris (cf. the 'River' Kebar in Ezek 1:1, which was also a canal). [One scholar] suggests the modern Meem, classical Maschana or Scenae, on the right bank of the Tigris River, which was near the beginning of two caravan routes" (note on verse 15).
After camping there for three days, awaiting more arrivals, it was soon realized that there were no Levites (verse 15). A similar problem came up at the time of the first return. While more than 4,000 priests returned with Zerubbabel, only 341 Levites did, including singers and gatekeepers (2:36-42). Perhaps they reckoned the Levitical role as lacking in prestige as compared with the priestly office. And maybe, with settled lives in Babylon, they did not want to go embark on a life of service and hard work in a faraway, undeveloped land. Yet, as noted above, about 40 Levites did answer the recruiting efforts initiated by Ezra (verses 16-19).
In Ezra 8:21, Ezra proclaims a fast. There are some important principles here. The purpose of a fast is to "humble ourselves before our God"—not so that we can cajole Him into taking pity on us and answering our every wish, but so that we can realize our total dependence on Him and therefore be in a more appropriate frame of mind for receiving His blessings. As part of this mind frame, we will be more receptive to God's will. That will help us "to seek from Him the right way for us." When we face hard decisions about where to go or what to do or how to do what needs to be done, fasting is a way to help us see God's direction. He can answer in a variety of ways—through circumstances, advice from others, direct inspiration or revelation through His Word, the Holy Bible, or even by direct intervention.
Ezra and those with him were in a serious predicament. Being waylaid by bandits and robbers was rather common in the ancient world. And yet Ezra had not asked the king for a military escort, as he felt it would have made his pious testimony to the king about the power and wrath of God seem phony (verse 22). Having fasted, however, Ezra says that God answered their prayers (verse 23). Whether this means that they received some confirmation of His protection is not clear. Perhaps they came across scriptural promises of protection during the fast. Perhaps God helped them to pick out a safer route. Then again, it may just refer to the fact that they made it to Judea without incident. Ezra does, however, specifically say that God delivered them "from the hand of the enemy and from ambush along the road" (verse 31). But whether actual ambushes were attempted and thwarted is not clear. Perhaps God kept any potential robbers from even thinking to ambush the returning exiles. This is quite remarkable when one considers all the treasure the company was transporting. "The 650 talents of silver weighed nearly 25 tons. The one hundred talents of gold weighed over three tons. These figures do not include the numerous other valuable objects of exquisite artistry" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 24-30). These sums equate to millions of dollars in today's money.
The exiles departed from Babylon and gathered outside the city at the Ahava Canal on the first day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar (7:9). They remained there for 11 days, striking out on their long journey on the 12th day of the month (8:31). From that point it took them about three and a half months to reach Jerusalem, as they arrived on the first day of the fifth month (7:9). After resting for three days, the returned exiles deposited their treasure in the temple and then offered sacrifices (verses 32-35). Then, "the delivery of the royal orders to the regional governors (8:36) may have taken weeks or even months. Ezra did not just deliver the decree, he secured the support of the king's satraps and governors" (note on 9:1).
We should realize that with this miniscule return of exiles, even added to those who had come in Zerubbabel's day, the vast majority of the Jewish people remained in Babylonia or were scattered throughout the empire. More would come later with Nehemiah, but the vast majority of the Jews would still remain scattered. In historical fact, many more Jews have returned to the Holy Land over the past century than ever returned in ancient times. Yet even the modern return constitutes a minority of the world's Jewish population. These small returns, while necessary to fulfill God's scriptural prophecies, have not constituted the great return to the Promised Land prophesied in Scripture—in which all Judah and all Israel as well are to return with miraculous signs and wonders. This great event is yet future—to occur after Christ's return. Nevertheless, we should view the small returns of ancient times as a tiny foretaste of what is to come—in the sense of a joyful reunion with God and true worship in His land after so long a time being gone.