The Prophets of the Exile

Saviors of a People

Richard D. Draper

Draper, Richard D., “The Prophets of the Exile: Saviors of a People” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book 2005), 245–265.

Richard D. Draper is associate dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University.

The thunder of Nebuchadnezzar’s battering rams should have sounded the death knell of the Jews as a people, but it did not. To say it another way, Jerusalem’s destruction, followed by the Babylonian captivity, marks a major break in the course of Jewish history but not its end. Those battering rams were instrumental in ending both Judah’s institutional and corporate life but not that of the people or their religion. Some things, however, did come to an end. Never again would the old social and religious pattern be constructed in exactly the same way. The destruction of the Jewish capital with its temple successfully demolished the Jewish state and ended its priestly activities. In 580 B.C. the Jewish people, beaten and scattered, were but an agglomeration of individual refugees living under foreign rule.[1] The threat posed by the exile must not be minimized or trivialized. [2] Loss of identity threatened the Jewish people more fully than at any other time in their existence with the possible exception of the Egyptian bondage. The possibility is underscored by the fact that a number of Jewish communities that took root outside Palestine eventually lost their Jewish character and eroded into the cultures of the area.[3] That Judah’s history did not end with the Babylonian captivity is nothing short of a miracle, but Judah not only survived the calamity but also formed a new and viable society built on the ruins of the old.[4] In the process, she refined, disciplined, and strengthened her faith, giving it a vigor and direction that would carry it into and beyond New Testament times.[5]

One aspect of that miracle central to the success of all the others is prophecy. Judah’s prophets kept her faith from extinction and her culture from decay. They did this, in part, by reminding her of her unique relation to her God and the mission He had assigned her. The prophets also fueled the Jews’ desire to return to their own land, rebuild God’s temple, and once more become His people. Further, these inspired men facilitated the miracle by satisfactorily answering the exile’s most urgent questions and, in the process, giving the Jews both hope and direction.[6]

It is noteworthy that the impetus of the miracle did not come, as one might suppose, from those Jews still living in and around Judea. The Babylonians left quite a nucleus of Jews in the land. Though the disruption of their life was extreme, it was by no means complete.[7] Many were able to eke out a living in various parts of Judea.[8] Evidence suggests that most of these Jews continued to practice an impure form of Jehovah worship.[9] Still, some, if not many, would have been loyal to their religion. These godly souls would have mourned for Zion and wished for her return. But for seventy years, all they did was wish. There was no spark, no energy, no attempt at restoration from this source.[10]

To the north, the Jewish communities experienced little disruption of life compared to their southern neighbors. Many hundreds of Jews continued to exist in Samaria and Galilee. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed few buildings and no cities in these areas. Few of these Jews, if any, were taken hostage by the king. They were the dominant population throughout the Jezreel and Galilee. Their worship, like that of the unfaithful Jews around Judea, would have contained many pagan elements.[11] But even here an orthodox strain would have yearned for the temple and prayed to their God. But pray was all they did. No restoration pressure existed here,[12] no fires of nationalistic zeal burned in the area. At best, it smoldered well beneath the surface, unable to produce the energy necessary to renew and rebuild what was lost.

The same is true of those Jews living in lands outside of Palestine. Even before the Babylonians marched, Jews had established a few communities and bolstered the population of others as they attempted to escape to more secure climes.[13] As chapters 42 through 44 of Jeremiah show, Egypt became very attractive for many of these. Quite a number of Jews settled in Daphnae, a city in the Nile delta; others moved farther south. Some were hired as mercenaries and developed a colony at Elephantine, near the first cataract of the Nile.[14] The successful Jewish communities in Egypt acted as magnets, and more Jews flowed into that country. But Egyptian favoritism did not act to stir into flame the coals of Judah’s desire to return. Rather, Egyptian wiles seem to have acted more to cool what little heat there was.

Both Transjordan and Syria received an influx of Jewish refugees. Jewish villages grew up here and there on the eastern end of the Mediterranean area,[15] but no pressure for restoration came from these Jews, either. Though they were much closer to Jerusalem and had influence with local leaders and sufficient resources to reenter the land of Judea and at least lay the foundation for further growth, none are known to have stirred. Indeed, the embers of gathering lay cold in these lands.

The scattered circumstance of the Jews underscores one point: prophecy was being fulfilled. Though Judah was not yet scattered the world over, the process was beginning in earnest. Never again would all, or even most, of her sons and daughters reside in Palestine. Never again would there be a full return before her Messiah came in glory.[16] But, considering the magnitude of the calamity that overtook her, the wonder is that she did not disappear into the vortex of history forever, as had so many nations before and after her. Many of these, like Judah’s northern sister, Ephraim, and her great enemy, the Philistines, lost their identity as a people during this time.[17] That Judah did not stems in large measure from the Jews in Babylon and the work going on among them.

It was in Babylon, in a land far away from Judah, that the desire for return actually burned. It is to these Jews, those who were actually taken into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar, that one must give the largest credit for the survival of the people. Three major factors contributed. First, the policy of deportation carried out by the Babylonians meant that the Jews in Babylon were the top of Judah’s intellectual, political, and ecclesiastical leadership. Jeremiah gives the total number of those deported (in 597, 587, and 582 B.C.) as forty-six hundred (see Jeremiah 52:28–30). This figure most likely represents only adult males, suggesting that the actual number was closer to twenty thousand.[18] That is not very many Jews, certainly far fewer than those living in either Palestine, Syria, or Egypt.

On the surface it seems surprising that the force that would preserve the nation would come from so few people, even if they were the more elite, but here the second factor came into play. Conditions in Babylon contributed markedly to their success. Though the Jews did suffer some discomfort and instability (especially during the first few years of exile) and were not free to return to their homeland, they were not prisoners, either. Theirs was a kind of modified, somewhat benevolent, internment that allowed them to buy land, open shops, move into civil service, and attend to their many chores. Eventually many of them settled into a comfortable, if unconnected, lifestyle.[19] The historical writings of the Bible suggest that they developed communities of their own and prospered in peace.[20] The Babylonians allowed them to assemble and to carry out certain civil and religious duties among themselves.[21] Many Jews entered trade, and some became quite wealthy.[22] Facilitating that favorable internment would have been the Jewish administrators, such as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were moving up in the ranks of Babylonian government. By the year 531 B.C., Zerubbabel had risen to the position of cup bearer, second in command among the palace bureaucrats. Some of the Jewish leaders were in an excellent position both to assist the captives and to enhance their desire to return and restore their homeland and temple.

In all, the Jews in Babylon produced the capital and manpower necessary to do the work essential for the return. But other areas of Jewish settlement had all these things as well. What they lacked was the one thing the Babylonian Jews had uniquely: the prophets. The Jews taken captive to Babylon included not only the socially elite but the spiritually elite as well. This brings us to the third factor that helped these Jews keep alive the spirit of restoration. It was here—not in Palestine, Syria, Jordan, or Egypt—where God placed His prophets. From them came the explanation, the direction, and the impetus for the restoration of the whole community and the religion.[23]

Nevertheless, Judah’s restoration, even with the prophetic push, did not transpire easily or automatically. It took a lot of soul-searching and a profound readjustment in her theological understanding to get things moving.[24] Yet the role played by the prophets must not be underestimated. Hindsight makes it easy for the modern reader to understand why Judah fell. But to many of the Jews living at the time, it was anything but clear. They questioned Jehovah’s dealings with His people, and some felt betrayed.

Because of that, Judah’s danger of apostatizing in Babylon was real and immediate. It may have been more acute here than anywhere else. Though the state and the religion of Judah emphasized the worship of Jehovah alone, insisting that all other gods were “no gods,” Judah was never more than a step away from polytheism. Archaeological evidence seems quite convincing that the common people practiced a symbiotic religion, mixing elements of Jehovah worship with worship of the gods of the land.[25] The writings of the prophets show that the people felt justified in doing this and were sure they should receive Jehovah’s blessings (see, for example, Hosea 9:9–10; Jeremiah 11:12–13).

The fall of Jerusalem did not immediately shatter those beliefs. Some felt that somehow Jehovah had failed them. When many of the Jews looked at what they considered Jehovah’s broken promise, evidenced in the victory of Babylon, they might have wondered if Babylon’s gods were not more real or at least more mighty than theirs.[26] To some it might have appeared that Jehovah was a petty god unable to protect even His petty state.

Others were not so willing to give credit to foreign gods. They felt Jehovah was responsible, but they questioned if He was really just. Many whined that their lot was unfounded and unfair.[27] Their attitude is perfectly reflected in the Book of Mormon, in the insistence of Laman and Lemuel that “we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people” (1 Nephi 17:22). Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the attitude displayed by these two ruthless brothers was popular in Judah as well. The prophet Habakkuk’s willingness to question God’s justness in using Babylon as His tool to chastise Judah underscores how pervasive the feeling was (see Habakkuk 1:1–17).

A third group, those who believed in the words of the prophets, feared that Judah had committed a mortal sin for which she could never be forgiven. As a result of this sin, she had lost her place as the covenant people as well as her homeland.[28] The Jews cried to their God for mercy but seemingly without hope. They knew that Jerusalem’s “gates are sunk into the ground; he [God] hath destroyed and broken her bars: her king and her princes are among the Gentiles: the law is no more; her prophets also find no vision [of hope] from the Lord” (Lamentations 2:9). Even for the faithful, the future appeared hopeless.

As a result, wholesale abandonment of Jehovah and His word threatened the Jews; the seductive power of Babylon compounded the problem. Jerusalem, seen through the eyes of parochialism, had seemed strong, beautiful, and mighty. Now, more cosmopolitan eyes, having looked upon the strength and splendor of Babylon and all she had to offer, saw Jerusalem as small, dingy, weak, and unsophisticated. Judah could neither ignore nor forget what had happened. She was forced to clarify her position in relation to the national tragedy and Babylon and its gods. The only other alternative was to perish.[29]

On the positive side, the captivity did deal a mortal blow to the dogma propagated by such false prophets as Hananiah and others. This false doctrine was based on two misconceptions. The first was the belief that Jehovah would never allow His temple to fall. Just what precedents caused the people to believe and the false prophets to propagate this idea are unknown, but the common proverb was “The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these” (Jeremiah 7:4), meaning that as long as the temple stood, God would protect the people. Jeremiah castigated the Jews for believing “in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not,” asked his God, “and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?” (Jeremiah 7:8–10).

It would not work, the Lord testified, and urged them to go to “Shiloh, where I set my name at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel” (Jeremiah 7:12). Judah should have understood the idiocy of the position taken by these pseudoprophets, for Shiloh, the chief sanctuary of Jehovah for centuries, now lay in ruins. Their own hymn mourned the extent of that loss, saying that God “forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men; and delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy’s hand. He gave his people over also unto the sword; and was wroth with his inheritance. The fire consumed their young men; and their maidens were not given to marriage. Their priests fell by the sword; and their widows made no lamentation” (Psalm 78:60–64). Still, few seem to have gotten the message, and its echoes must have haunted those in Babylon.

The second misconception lay in the false belief that God would uphold the Davidic dynasty no matter what. Here we can see how the Jews came to believe this idea. Nathan, the prophet, had told David that “thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever” (2 Samuel 7:16). David himself exulted that Jehovah “hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure: for this is all my salvation, and all my desire” (2 Samuel 23:5).[30] The theology quickly developed that each king, as Jehovah’s anointed “son” (Psalm 2:7–11), would be protected from his foes and lead Israel to an ever-expanding kingdom (see, for example, Psalm 72:8–11).

As Jeremiah had worked to redirect Israel’s thinking about the temple, Micah had earlier tried to make a course correction concerning God’s covenant with her princes. He stated in no uncertain terms that he had full authority to “declare unto Jacob his transgression, and to Israel his sin. Hear this, I pray you, ye heads of the house of Jacob, and princes of the house of Israel, that abhor judgment, and pervert all equity. They build up Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity. The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money: yet will they lean upon the Lord, and say, Is not the Lord among us? none evil can come upon us. Therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the house as the high places of the forest” (Micah 3:8–12).

Micah did not stand alone in his testimony. Isaiah also assailed the nobles, judges, and priests for their unscrupulous willingness to rob from the poor and defenseless. God would not allow prince, priest, or prophet to lead Judah astray without severe consequences. Indeed, Judah, with all her seeming splendor, would fall.[31]

But Judah ignored these clear warnings. The false dogma proved too intoxicating because of the acute sense of security it offered. It further allowed Judah to reject Jehovah’s laws and His true prophets and foolishly believe that the scion of David’s line—the Messiah—would soon come and establish His world-embracing kingdom over which the Jews would triumphantly rule.

Babylonian battering rams destroyed that belief as surely and completely as they breached Jerusalem’s walls. Those who had put trust in it now found their spiritual lives in peril, much as their ancestors’ physical lives had been in danger under the Egyptian pharaohs. What Judah desperately needed was another Moses to lead her out of the way not of physical harm but of spiritual harm. And she had one in the form of the prophets.

Judaism in Babylon survived because of three interconnected phenomena. First, the spiritually weak apostatized, leaving the ranks of the faithful more pure and determined; second, the spiritually strong repented and became more orthodox; and, finally, those who remained in the faith began to listen with hearing ears to the voices of the prophets. They quickly found that these inspired men had answered and continued to answer Judah’s most pressing questions. The prophets carefully and fully identified her problems and gave counsel on how to correct them, promising that the people could once again return to God’s covenant and the land tied thereto.

Through the prophets, Judah became convinced that God’s judgment had been righteous and well deserved.[32] Her job was to repent; then God would restore the covenant. Hosea’s gracious act of taking to himself a wife who had turned to prostitution (see Hosea 1:1–2:23) must have given the Jews comfort and hope. The prophets’ love, mirroring that of Jehovah for Judah, testified that God would gladly welcome back the penitent with full forgiveness.

The prophets did not underplay the tragedy that had occurred. Nonetheless, they offered hope in Jehovah’s redemptive purpose. Judah would not stay in captivity. She was but a stranger in a strange land, a sojourner in a foreign country from which she would eventually be released. Jeremiah even supplied the parameters of her stay, promising Judah that she would “serve the king of Babylon seventy years. And it shall come to pass, when seventy years are accomplished, that I [God] will punish the king of Babylon, and that nation, saith the Lord, for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans, and will make it perpetual desolations” (Jeremiah 25:11–12). Therefore, Judah’s challenge was to make sure that she did not become integrated into the culture of this foreign land or she might forget her true home and temple.

An important task of the prophets was to assure Judah that, even in Babylon, Jehovah was with her. They did that by reinforcing the idea that Jehovah governed and controlled the destiny of all nations, including Babylon. Here the writings of Daniel were particularly poignant. The historical portion of his work contains two stories that bear directly on the point.[33] The first dealt with Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the great image. The important point of the story was not only that Daniel interpreted the king’s dream but also that he had the ability to do it. The story really plays upon the latter point. The king insisted that his auditors, consisting of many of his wise men, astrologers, magicians, and soothsayers,[34] tell him the dream before they interpreted it, as insurance that their interpretation was true. His demand brought forth the excuse that “there is none other that can shew it before the king, except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh” (Daniel 2:11). Here the Babylonian priests admit that they could not get in contact with their own local gods on such matters. Daniel, however, was able to tell the king the dream because his God, who possessed both wisdom and might, also “giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding: he revealeth the deep and secret things: he knoweth what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth with him” (Daniel 2:21–22). The irony is important; the response of the Babylonian wise men underscores their belief that their own gods were distant and impersonal, while Daniel’s shows that Jehovah, even in Babylon, was immediate and personal.

So that his readers would not miss the point, Daniel further testified that Jehovah was also the one who “changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings” (Daniel 2:21). Nebuchadnezzar’s dream emphasized the last point. It was Jehovah who chose Nebuchadnezzar to be king and who would set up all the kingdoms to follow until God’s own eternal kingdom overmastered and ruled the rest (see Daniel 2:36–45).

Daniel’s second point, showing that the Lord governed Babylon, centered on Jehovah’s work in convincing its kings that He was the living God. We see the progression in four events. The first, already noted, was Daniel’s ability to tell Nebuchadnezzar both his dream and its meaning. Daniel ascribed the power to “the God of heaven” (Daniel 2:19, 44). The Jews used this term to designate the almighty and true God.[35] The point Daniel may have been making with the king is that the prophet’s God overmastered the whole heaven, including the stars that the Babylonians worshipped as symbols of their gods. As a result, the king concluded that “your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets, seeing thou couldest reveal this secret” (Daniel 2:47). We see in this admission the king allowing Jehovah a place among the pantheon of Babylonian gods and even according Him the special place as revealer. But to have the Lord as one among the many gods would not do, so Jehovah instituted the next step.

The king set up an idol and wanted all to worship it. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused, he ordered them burned (see Daniel 3:13–22). When they emerged from the fire, not only unharmed but not even smelling of smoke, the king exclaimed, “There is no other God that can deliver after this sort” (Daniel 3:29). Jehovah had definitely climbed a few more rungs up the ladder of the pantheon. Still, that was not far enough. The next event would push His position all the way to the top.

The king again had a dream that Daniel interpreted. The king, according to the revelation, would go mad for seven years, “till thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will” (Daniel 4:25). Nebuchadnezzar may rule over Babylon and its temples, but Jehovah ruled over him. The malady struck that very hour.[36] Then, as the record reports, “at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the most High, and I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:34). It is hard to know from the text if Nebuchadnezzar moved from polytheism to henotheism or monotheism. One thing is sure: he reckoned Jehovah as “the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase” (Daniel 4:37).

Darius took the last step, which occurred when Daniel’s enemies tricked the king into throwing Daniel into the lions’ den. The king confessed his belief that Daniel’s God could save him (see Daniel 6:16). When He did, Darius made a decree commanding, “That in every dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: for he is the living God, and stedfast for ever, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even unto the end” (Daniel 6:26). Jehovah no longer stood as one of the many gods nor as the head of the gods: He was the living God whose kingdom and dominion were everlasting.

It would be helpful to know when Daniel, or an editor, composed and circulated his works. Because his record does not conclude until the reign of Cyrus the Persian, the book as we know it probably did not come into being until the Jews either had departed or were preparing to depart for the land of Judea. But because Daniel was a high official—second only to the king some of the time, according to the record (see Daniel 6:1–3)—his teachings and experiences should have been well known to his fellow Jews. If that is the case, his testimony would have reinforced the idea that God was with them and directing the affairs not only of Babylon but also of all nations through time. Further, it promised the Jews that even in Babylon, Jehovah could and did sustain and protect those who remained true to the faith.

We are on firmer ground dating the work of Jeremiah. His prophecies were written down throughout his long ministry, beginning under the reign of Josiah (626–608 B.C.) and concluding after Zedekiah’s fall in 586 B.C. Though his messages made him unpopular with some of the most influential and powerful people in Jerusalem, to the point where he was incarcerated and persecuted, others, in addition to his scribe Baruch, were carefully recording and preserving them.[37]

Jeremiah was of the priestly house. He lived in the village of Anathoth, about three miles north of the Jerusalem temple. Shortly before 608 B.C., his fearless voice rang out in clear warning. To the Jews who gathered for worship, he warned:

The Lord said unto me, Proclaim all these words in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem, saying, Hear ye the words of this covenant, and do them.

For I earnestly protested unto your fathers in the day that I brought them up out of the land of Egypt, even unto this day, rising early and protesting, saying, Obey my voice.

Yet they obeyed not, nor inclined their ear, but walked every one in the imagination of their evil heart: therefore I will bring upon them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do; but they did them not.

And the Lord said unto me, A conspiracy is found among the men of Judah, and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

They are turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, which refused to hear my words; and they went after other gods to serve them: the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant which I made with their fathers.

Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them. (Jeremiah 11:6–11)

The warning was clear: Judah must repent and follow her God or the coming evil would bring her great suffering. But she would come to repentance, he warned, one way or another. If she would not do it on her own, then “thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee” (Jeremiah 2:19). The evil agent, He warned, already gathering to the north, was ready to move against this vile and sinful nation. The agent of destruction, the Lord warned, “is a mighty nation, it is an ancient nation, a nation whose language thou knowest not, neither understandest what they say. . . . And they shall eat up thine harvest, and thy bread, which thy sons and thy daughters should eat: they shall eat up thy flocks and thine herds: they shall eat up thy vines and thy fig trees: they shall impoverish thy fenced cities, wherein thou trustedst, with the sword” (Jeremiah 5:15–17; see also 2:16; 4:5–8, 11–17; 6:22–26). When the destruction came, the Jews would lament, “The Lord our God has put us to silence, and given us water of gall to drink, because we have sinned against the Lord” (Jeremiah 8:14).

Jeremiah did not deny the validity of the Davidic covenant in which so many trusted; however, he pushed it into the future and made its realization contingent on the righteousness of the people (see Jeremiah 23:5–8). For now, he warned David’s heir, “Execute ye judgment and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor: and do not wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place. . . . But if ye will not hear these words, I swear by myself, saith the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation” (Jeremiah 22:3–5).

Jeremiah’s message must have haunted those captives on the way to Babylon who had heard and spurned it. Yet it still took them some time before they accepted it and were finally healed by it. This spiritual balm of Gilead, once applied, worked upon the captives and those living in Judah and elsewhere. The message made sense and found reinforcement in other scriptures. But the powerful voice of another prophet backed up Jeremiah and acted to fulfill the divine law of witnesses:[38] Ezekiel.

Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was a priest (see Ezekiel 1:3). That explains in part why he became one of Nebuchadnezzar’s many hostages, the Babylonians concentrating on children of the gentry, clergy, and aristocracy. His captors would have taken him into Babylon about 597 B.C. with a group of Jewish exiles deported about a decade before Jerusalem was destroyed.[39] Because Jeremiah had been prophesying for more than ten years by that time, it is very likely that Ezekiel would have heard his testimony and caught the same fire. God called him to carry the message into the streets of the Babylonian captives as Jeremiah did in the streets of Jerusalem.

He used the prophetic ‘ot, rather exaggerated symbolic acts, as the means of drawing attention to his message. Among other things, he symbolized the coming fate of Jerusalem by drawing a picture of the city on a brick and then, while eating rationed foods, simulating a siege against it (see Ezekiel 4:1–15).

A little later, he shaved off his hair and beard. That act alone, especially shaving his beard, would have brought him a great deal of attention. Men in both the Babylonian and the Jewish cultures wore beards, and the Jews viewed them as a sign of adult male vitality and glory.[40] The prophet’s clean-shaven face would have startled those who viewed it. But they would have sensed his message, for the shaved beard symbolized a radical change in the state of affairs.[41] He did not leave his audience guessing as to which way affairs were going to change. One-third of his hair he burned with fire, another he hacked with the sword, and the last he scattered to the wind. He did retain a few strands, which he tied to the hem of his robe (see Ezekiel 5:1–5).

This ritual act he followed with a stern warning. “This is Jerusalem,” he explained, and because “she hath changed my [that is, God’s] judgments into wickedness more than the nations,” God “will execute judgments in the midst of thee in the sight of the nations.” The judgment would be horrible, for “fathers shall eat the sons in the midst of thee and the sons shall eat their fathers; and I [God] will execute judgments in thee, and the whole remnant of thee will I scatter into all the winds.” Underscoring the reason for such severe judgment, the Lord chastised, “Surely, because thou hast defiled my sanctuary with all thy detestable things, and with all thine abominations, therefore will I also diminish thee; neither shall mine eye spare, neither will I have any pity” (Ezekiel 5:5–7, 9–11).

Ezekiel clearly preached against the idea that the temple alone would save the people. He recounted a vision in which he saw the Lord’s Spirit lift from the sanctuary, hover over the temple for a moment, and then depart to the east (see Ezekiel 9:8; 10:18; 11:23). His message was both clear and simple: It was not the temple but righteousness that would be Judah’s only shield. Where there was no righteousness, there was no hope.

Ezekiel’s words stung the Jews of the captivity, but they refused, at least initially, to respond. Jehovah castigated them because “they hear thy words, but they do them not.” But they would soon learn a stern lesson, for “when this [the fall of Jerusalem] cometh to pass (lo, it will come,) then shall they know that a prophet hath been among them” (Ezekiel 33:32–33).

Not many months later, the captive Jews received a startling witness that they, indeed, had a prophet among them. An escapee from the siege of Jerusalem was able to make his way to the captives and testify, “The city is smitten” (Ezekiel 33:21). The shock of that testimony and, a short time later, the confirmation by several thousand refugees moving into the area, stirred the Jews to listen to Ezekiel. He assured them that God took no pleasure in His people’s pain but that it was the only way He could get Judah to turn from her wicked ways (see Ezekiel 33:11). Ezekiel moved to allay their fears with as much energy as he had used to provoke their righteousness.

Again his voice was not alone. Former and present prophets continually assured the people that there would be a homecoming. Even the most dire prophecies were tempered by the assurance that Zion would be delivered, God’s temple would stand again, and Israel would be restored (note particularly Jeremiah 32:6–15). Ezekiel’s famous vision of the dry bones testified to not only the eventual resurrection of Israel but also the more immediate restoration of Judah:

Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.

Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.

And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, and shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord. (Ezekiel 37:11–14; emphasis added)

God commanded Ezekiel to “take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions” to show that the whole house of Israel, not just Judah, would be restored (Ezekiel 37:16). Therefore, the Lord said:

Join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand.

And when the children of thy people shall speak unto thee, saying, Wilt thou not shew us what thou meanest by these?

Say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his fellows, and will put them with him, even with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand.

And the sticks whereon thou writest shall be in thine hand before their eyes.

And say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land. (Ezekiel 37:17–21; emphasis added)

Though this scripture looks to the last days, it had immediate application to Judah’s return from captivity. Ezekiel’s commission to join together the sticks—or better, writing tablets—became a harbinger of the restoration of all Israel. As Latter-day Saints we understand that the passage referred to the Book of Mormon and the Bible. The captive Jews, however, would have seen it as a plea to accept the message of the prophets of the north (for example, Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah) combined with those of the south (for example, Micah, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk) that Jehovah reigned and would see that His people returned.

Once Judah began to look, the scriptural evidence of her restoration must have been very reassuring. Further, the scriptures even outlined the events that would lead to her return. Isaiah foresaw the fall of her captor Babylon and the coming of her Median liberator, Cyrus.[42] Jehovah’s doleful words promised Babylon a tragic end: “I will stir up the Medes against them, which shall not regard silver; and as for gold, they shall not delight in it. Their bows also shall dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eye shall not spare children. And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah” (Isaiah 13:17–19).

The reaction of the exiles after the fall of Jerusalem to the promises of deliverance and restoration brought to the prophets all they could have hoped for. The people confessed their sins and turned to their Lord. Solomon’s inspired prayer had seen them “repent, and make supplication unto thee [Jehovah] in the land of them that carried them captives, saying, We have sinned, and have done perversely, we have committed wickedness” (1 Kings 8:47). Then would they “return unto thee with all their heart, and with all their soul, in the land of their enemies, which led them away captive, and pray unto thee toward their land, which thou gavest their fathers” (1 Kings 8:48). Isaiah quoted their prayer for restoration. They would ask the Lord to “return for thy servants’ sake, the tribes of thine inheritance. The people of thy holiness have possessed it but a little while: our adversaries have trodden down thy sanctuary. We are thine: thou never barest rule over them; they were not called by thy name” (Isaiah 63:17–19). To their prayer the Lord would respond, “I will bring forth a seed out of Jacob, and out of Judah an inheritor of my mountains: and mine elect shall inherit it, and my servants shall dwell there” (Isaiah 65:9).

The promise seemed sure. Judah’s job was to turn to her God with full purpose of heart and the reward would come. Yet there was tension between those who desired to establish the new nation on the basis of its old Davidic theology (see Ezekiel 34:23–27; 37:24) and those with the grander vision of an idealized confederation based on the old pattern of the tribal league. These saw the nation presided over by the Zadokite priesthood with the restored Davidic monarchy playing the reduced role of protector of the state and the religion[43] (see Ezekiel 43–45; especially 43:1–7; 44:4–31). The difference of opinion, however, could not be resolved while the Jews were in Babylon, but it does illustrate their growing faith in the prophecies. They hoped that they would have the opportunity to create a distinctly Jewish society in the land of Palestine.

The promises of the scriptures and the hope that they generated moved Judah to place high value upon them. She began to prize God’s law as the means of salvation in both a temporal and a spiritual sense. As a result, she embarked upon a kind of “operation salvage,” collecting, editing, compiling, and copying the Law and the Prophets. Details are unknown of how the Jews proceeded, but the movement was unstoppable once it began.[44] How the Jews in Babylon happened to have quite a collection of scriptures remains somewhat of a mystery. The Book of Mormon indicates that an extensive collection was kept by one of Jerusalem’s generals (see 1 Nephi 3:3; 5:10). We don’t know if other copies existed, but it seems reasonable that there were other collections as well as individual pieces treasured by their owners. The wealth of source material in the Bible, especially the historical records and writings of the early prophets, suggests that the records were composed in Jerusalem well before 587 B.C.[45] Many of these records may have been taken to Babylon by various hostages, especially those of priestly and royal rank, and finally, by the last deportees. At any rate, the Jews in Babylon were able to collect and begin to duplicate a large number of scriptures, further evidence of their growing trust in God’s word through His prophets.

Thus, while the Jews were still in captivity, the voice of their former and present prophets provided the answers to Judah’s questions and gave her hope and direction for the future. Under their auspices, she was able to keep her integrity in Babylon and prepare for the realization of the blessings of her restoration. In the meantime, the prophets gave her a role to play even in Babylon. They allowed her to see herself as the servant of Jehovah responsible for carrying His law to later generations. By encouraging Judah to see herself in this role, the prophets gave a most profound interpretation to both her present distress and her eventual destiny.[46] By doing so, they gave meaning to the whole and reinforced the need for total loyalty to her God. This bound the people to a common ideal and kept many of them from becoming lost in Babylon. When proper circumstances arose, she had the will and determination to appeal to her captors for her freedom. Under the guidance of her leaders, she returned home and began to rebuild her national identity.


[1] John Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 343.

[2] Such has been done by Charles C. Torrey, The Chronicler’s History of Israel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1954).

[3] H. H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 160.

[4] Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews (New York: Shocken Books, 1970), 57–60.

[5] Bright, History of Israel, 343.

[6] Epigraphic sources for the sixth and fifth centuries are meager. Even so, a fairly clear picture can be drawn from Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, 1 Esdras, the postexilic prophetic books, and the few extrabiblical sources that exist.

[7] On the extensive damage done to Jerusalem, see Kathleen M. Kenyon, Jerusalem (London: Thames and Hudson, 1967), 78–104. Jerusalem was completely pillaged and much was destroyed, but little of it, including the temple mount, was actually leveled. Until 1925, scholars did not realize the extent of the catastrophe. Archaeology has shown that the Babylonians razed virtually every fortified town in Judea (see Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, ed. John W. Welch [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988], 9–10).

[8] Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 10,000–586 B.C. (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 548–50.

[9] See Ezekiel 33:24–29 in light of Isaiah 57:3–13; 65:1, 11, for example.

[10] Peter R. Ackroyd, Exile and Restoration: A Study of Hebrew Thought of the Sixth Century B.C. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), 18–25; Bright, History of Israel, 345.

[11] See Hosea 4:6, 12–13; 8:11, for examples. Less devout and more ignorant Jews moving into the area would likely have been influenced by them. These areas also contained non-Israelites, many of whom had been moved here by the Assyrians in the late 700s (see 2 Kings 17).

[12] Bright, History of Israel, 345.

[13] Ben-Sasson, History of the Jewish People, 160–61.

[14] James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 491–92.

[15] Ben-Sasson, History of the Jewish People, 161–62; Ackroyd, Exile and Restoration, 20–23.

[16] Bright, History of Israel, 346–47.

[17] Bright, History of Israel, 347. On the demise of the Philistines, see The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), s.v. “Philistines.”

[18] See Ackroyd, Exile, 20–23; Ezra Janssen, “Judah in der Exilszeit,” Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments (Göttengen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1956), 25–39, for further discussion and source material.

[19] Adolf Alt, Kleine Schriften zur Geschichte des Volkes Israel (Munich: C. H. Beck’she Verlagsbuchhantlung, 1953–59), 2:326, argues persuasively that the Babylonians placed the Jews under a very different internment than that used by the Assyrians.

[20] See Ezra 3:15; 2:59; 8:17; Jeremiah 29:5–7, for example.

[21] See Ezekiel 8:1; 14:1; 33:30, for examples.

[22] Bright, History of Israel, 346.

[23] Bright, History of Israel, 345.

[24] Ben-Sasson, History of the Jewish People, 163–64; Bright, History of Israel, 347. For a discussion of the whole issue, see David Noel Freedman, “Son of Man, Can These Bones Live?” Interpretation, 29 (1975): 171–86.

[25] Mazar, Archaeology, 348–52.

[26] Jeremiah 44:15–19 and Ezekiel 20:32 show how acutely some Jews were tempted to leave the old faith (see also Bright, History of Israel, 347).

[27] See, for example, Ezekiel 18:2, 25; Lamentations 5:7.

[28] Isaiah 63:19 reflects the idea that the covenant could be lost, and Ezekiel 33:10; 37:11 shows that some of the Jews were really concerned about it.

[29] Bright, History of Israel, 348.

[30] The same idea is expressed in a number of the hymns. See, for example, Psalms 2; 18; 20; 21; 45; 72; 89; 101; 110; and 132. For discussion on the development of the kingship theology within Israel, see Hans J. Kraus, Worship in Israel: A Cultic History of the Old Testament (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1966); R. E. Clements, Abraham and David: Genesis XV and Its Meaning for Israelite Tradition (London: SCM Press, 1967), 4–96; and Bright, History, 224–25, 289–98.

[31] See, for example, Isaiah 1:21–23; 3:13; 5:8, 23; 10:1.

[32] Bright, History of Israel, 349.

[33] Because the apocalyptic portion has been sealed (see Daniel 12:4, 9) and no prophet of the Restoration has opened it, much that is there remains a mystery. As a result, it requires too much speculation to be of worth for the purposes of this paper.

[34] The Aramaic word designated “magicians” but would have included all those claiming ability to understand mysteries. Though Daniel would not have been viewed as a magician, he would have been viewed as one with powers of God and therefore would have been caught in the king’s net.

[35] The title designated the high place of Jehovah and stressed His rank above all things (see Genesis 24:7; Ezra 1:2; 6:10; Nehemiah 1:5; 2:4; Psalm 136:26).

[36] Nabonidus may have suffered also from a period of madness. A fragment from Qumran shows that a Jewish tradition existed ascribing his long absence from Babylon to mental illness as a vengeance which came upon him from God (see Joan Oates, Babylon [London: Thames and Hudson, 1979], 133).

[37] The Book of Mormon suggests there were record keepers in charge of preserving prophecies among the people. The brass plates, taken by Nephi from Laban, contained “prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah; and also many of the prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah” (1 Nephi 5:12). Because Jeremiah continued to prophesy for some time after 600 B.C., someone was collecting and recording his prophecies while they were being given.

[38] See the biblical instruction in Deuteronomy 17:6 and in Matthew 18:16.

[39] Because of Ezekiel’s call while he was in Babylon about 593, some date his captivity to that point; however, the Babylonians took quite a few of the priestly families captive five years earlier. That seems the better date (see Harold H. Rowley, “The Book of Ezekiel in Modern Study,” Men of God [London: T. Nelson, 1963], 169–210).

[40] In most ancient Near Eastern languages, the word describing an adult male was a cognate of the word for beard (see The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas [Grand Rapids , Mich.: Eerdmans, 1962], s.v. “Beard”).

[41] Merrill C. Tenney, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), s.v. “Beard.”

[42] Isaiah 44:28; 45:1 mentions Cyrus by name.

[43] See Martin North, The Law in the Pentateuch and Other Studies (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 67–70.

[44] Bright, History of Israel, 350. Note 2 Kings 25:27–30, which had to be added to the text by the Babylonian Jews. The addition shows that the Jews were actively working on their records during the captivity.

[45] Martin North, Üuml-berlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien I (Halle, Germany: M. Niemeyer, 1943), argues that material had been written down from at least the tenth century and that more than one collection existed between 622 and 587. See that study for sources and background material.

[46] H. H. Rowley, The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays, rev. ed. (Oxford: Blackwells, 1965), 1–60, has completed an excellent study on this motif and its effects on the Jews of the captivity and afterward.